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Harford needs campaign finance reform, not term limits | COMMENTARY

Harford County Barry Glassman, joined by his wife Debi and son Jordan, officially announces his run for State Comptroller Thursday, April 15, 2021 at the Level Volunteer Fire Company. (Matt Button/The Aegis).
Harford County Barry Glassman, joined by his wife Debi and son Jordan, officially announces his run for State Comptroller Thursday, April 15, 2021 at the Level Volunteer Fire Company. (Matt Button/The Aegis). (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman recently announced he wants to have members of the Harford County Council limited to two, consecutive, four-year terms apiece. It’s not terribly surprising that the idea has occurred to him. First, because he’s in the final months of his own similarly term-limited service as county executive. Second, because he’s proposed it before when he served on the council. And third, because it’s the kind of throw-the-bums-out, feel-good, but ultimately ineffective, measure that politicians seeking higher office like to throw around. Especially Republicans. And it’s at this point we should mention Mr. Glassman is a Republican candidate to be the next Maryland comptroller.

Simply proposing the idea is one thing. It would have to be approved by the council and then by county voters. Or it could be brought to the ballot next year independently with the signatures of 10,000 registered county voters. The bill is not absolute. A person could serve two terms on the council, for example, and then run to be council president without interruption. Or a two-term councilmember could take one term off and then run again, because the terms would no longer be consecutive. Still, if approved, the limit would start with the 2022-2026 term, so incumbents on the council get a fresh start, or at least that’s what Mr. Glassman envisions.

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In his official statement, Mr. Glassman said his goal was to “include more citizens in public service.” That sounds great. But it raises the question: What’s keeping more citizens from successfully running for public office now? That’s easy. It’s a difficult and costly undertaking. Average people don’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to pay for yard signs or radio ads or billboards or direct mail campaigns or all the other essentials. Incumbents usually do. Why? Because special interests (and, in counties like Harford, that generally means developers and their allies) donate significant sums of money so that their businesses and investments will be treated favorably by county government. Need to have property rezoned? Your chances are likely improved if you give to the right campaigns.

That doesn’t make all incumbents evil. It’s just how a flawed system works. And what Mr. Glassman and others ought to be doing is attempting to level the playing field so that having the support of special interests is not so overwhelming. Thus, the best solution is to back public financing of political campaigns. Reward candidates who qualify with small donations with matching dollars either through a special fund (like the tax return, voluntary, $3 check-off that helps pay for Presidential Election Campaign Fund) or just straight tax dollars. If it’s good for candidates running to be president (or to be Maryland’s next governor), it’s good for Harford County, too. And candidate participation is completely voluntary.

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Make no mistake, this is not out of left field. Voters in neighboring Baltimore County approved public financing as a charter amendment in the 2020 election, and it’s expected to apply to the 2026 council and county executive races. Baltimore City, Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties also offer a public financing option for candidates. And did we mention that Larry Hogan, a Republican, was elected governor with public financing?

A spokeswoman for Mr. Glassman says he has not taken a position on public financing but he “supports transparency and disclosure of campaign contributions, including monthly electronic reporting.” Well, that’s a good start. One of the worst effects of term limits is that it takes the decision out of the hands of voters. What happens when you have a very good county councilmember who has learned the intricacies of county government over eight years and is now doing his best work? Unless he’s going to be elected president (an at-large position that demands he run outside his district), he’s going to be replaced by someone who may or may not be competent.

How much better to put the power in the hands of voters. Level the playing field so that incumbents and the politically connected don’t overwhelm their opponents. This also leads to electing people who aren’t beholden to deep-pocketed special interests or their political parties when it’s time to make important public policy choices. That kind of good government reform can be even more powerful than transparency and public disclosure. And it’s one reason why incumbents, lobbyists and political bosses usually hate it: It tends to dilute their influence.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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