Seemingly little noticed outside Rockville was a Montgomery County Council subcommittee's decision this week in support of public financing of local political campaigns. If, as expected, the legislation is approved by the full council, Montgomery County would become the first subdivision in Maryland to offer public financing to qualified candidates for political office.
It could be the start of something big, and Baltimore City and the state's 22 other counties ought to be eyeing this closely — so should those running to be Maryland's next governor or for seats in the General Assembly. And voters ought to be asking every state and local candidate on this November's ballot where he or she stands on the issue.
Why? Because such reforms offer the best chance for addressing one of the most pernicious problems facing democracy in this country — the rise of big money political donations and the outsized influence deep-pocketed special interests have on elections and on public policy. Candidates for public office have become slaves to fundraising, and it's difficult to believe the big donors aren't getting a significant return on their investments in the form of access and influence.
What is being proposed in Montgomery County is relatively simple. Beginning in 2015, candidates for county executive or council would qualify to have their political campaigns publicly funded if they attracted a sufficient number of small contributions of $5 to $150. In the case of a council race, for instance, it would be 125 donations adding up to at least $10,000. After that, campaigns would be largely publicly financed on a matching basis — up to $125,000 for a district council seat, $250,000 for an at-large council seat or up to $1.5 million for a county executive candidate who makes it to the general election.
The system would be voluntary, but participants would not be able to accept donations larger than $150 or from political action committees or labor organizations. The point is to empower small donors and to prevent large donors from wielding outsized influence in government decisions.
That large campaign donations might have a corrupting influence on the political process is a no-brainer. And the numbers are getting breathtaking even on the county level. In Montgomery County, for instance, two council candidates raised more than $300,000 in the last election cycle. In Howard County, candidates raised between $44,000 and $182,000, according to a report by Common Cause of Maryland. And the numbers keep growing — with developers and others doing business directly with county government the chief financiers of such largesse.
It should come as no surprise that incumbents have often been reluctant to pick up this particular cause, but experience in states like Connecticut and Arizona demonstrates that public financing doesn't fuel an oust-the-incumbent fever so much as make candidates more beholden to voters and less to big donors. And complaints that tax dollars should not be spent on politics are foolishly short-sighted considering the far more costly damage wrought by government corruption.
Democrats ought to be first in line to endorse the strategy. When Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected as governor in 2002, his promise to change the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis likely earned him some cross-over votes. With Democrats holding big majorities in the state legislature and most jurisdictions within Central Maryland (the Montgomery County Council is entirely populated by Democrats, for instance), voters have reason to worry over the absence of checks and balances.
It's also a bit odd for Maryland Democrats to rail so vehemently against the power of wealthy corporations in light of the Citizens United ruling on the federal level and then show so little concern for what happens closer to home. Although to be fair, the Montgomery County proposal is only possible because the state legislature granted local governments the authority to create public financing programs last year; Montgomery is simply the first county to take the plunge.
It's not as if voters in this state don't have reason to be suspicious. The gerrymandering of congressional districts in Maryland is as bad as in any state, and the costly boondoggle of the health care exchange provoked only a mild reaction in the General Assembly (and an investigation that won't be finalized until well after the November election). Reducing the influence of big money on elections might not address either issue, but it would surely help elect candidates who are less beholden to political party or to special interests.
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