Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman began his second attempt to pass public campaign finance legislation at Monday night’s County Council meeting after his efforts to get it on the ballot failed in 2022.
The bill would set up a framework in which candidates running for county office could receive public funds that match small donations. In exchange for participating in the system, candidates would not be allowed to accept individual donations exceeding $250 or money from political action committees. It’s a campaign financing option Pittman wanted to allow residents to vote on in the 2022 election, but a proposed ballot measure failed to get the requisite five-vote supermajority from the County Council which was, and is still, composed of four Democrats and three Republicans.
The goal is to level the playing field so candidates who are connected to major donors or come from great personal wealth don’t have an outsized advantage, said Pittman’s chief strategy officer Pete Baron.
Sponsored by Council Chair Pete Smith, a Severn Democrat, on behalf of Pittman, the bill received several amendments, almost all of which were sponsored by council member Nathan Volke, a Pasadena Republican, in an attempt to limit the scope of the process that would make county funds available to candidates.
“I think there are a lot of people who are going to testify in favor of this bill who would not want to be subsidizing my campaign because they don’t necessarily agree with my ideas on certain things and I feel the same way about other people who would be running,” Volke said. “We’re sort of being asked to fund the ideas of people that we would vehemently disagree with.”
It isn’t fair to require taxpayers to take part in a political system they don’t want to engage with, Volke argued. However, others who supported the bill retorted that many government-funded programs are not used by everyone in the county, but are for the greater good of all residents.
“Our county parks, our county police force, our public schools — there’s lots of things you may say, ‘I never use that,’ but your tax dollars are going towards it. To me, that is the essence of democracy and what good government is about,” said council member Lisa Rodvien, an Annapolis Democrat.
Baron explained that the system would allow everyone who is interested in running the opportunity to campaign and spread their message to all the voters they need to reach. A program like this would remove a financial barrier to prospective candidates, which is why Pittman has fought so hard to make it happen. Pittman sponsored the 2022 resolution and a petition drive later that year to get the question on the ballot. The petition effort failed after the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections rejected more than half of the 11,000 signatures obtained by a coalition of voting rights groups.
“Where we are in this country and how money has driven politics, I think is disheartening to a majority of our residents,” Baron said.
If the bill were to pass, Anne Arundel would be the sixth jurisdiction to adopt a public campaign finance program. Others include Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, which are all at various stages of implementation. It’s also available at the state level and was successfully employed by former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2014.
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In order to qualify for the program, candidates for county executive would need to receive at least 500 individual contributions of $250 or less and a total of $40,000 in donations. County Council candidateswould need at least 75 individual contributions of $250 or less and a total of $7,500. Each small donation would get matched by county funds — the smaller the donation, the larger the match. In each election cycle, county executive candidates could receive up to $750,000 in public contributions based on how much they raise in donations while council candidates could earn up to $125,000.
In the 2022 election, Pittman spent more than $1.6 million on his campaign while his opponent, Republican Jessica Haire, spent more than $2.2 million.
“I would take comfort in knowing that a candidate has not accepted contributions from big companies, big corporations,” Rodvien said.
If each candidate that ran for local office in 2022 had used the program it would have cost the county about $8.4 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note. Based on assessments of other counties that have used the program, the county’s budget office estimates the cost would be as much as $3 million in the upcoming election cycle.
The majority of people who testified on Monday supported the program, saying it would diversify the candidate pool, create more options for voters and make residents more excited about voting and invested in local government.
“A basic tenet of good government is to allow people to run for office without having personal wealth or corporate sponsorship. In this way, ordinary citizens will hustle and organize and have a voice,” said Matt Minahan, chair of the county’s Growth Action Network, an organization that advocates for sustainable land use. “I will happily support the public funding for Mr. Volke’s campaign as long as I can also support the public funding of his opponents.”
In other business, the council continued to amend a bill to limit the use of plastic bags in the county. It will come back for a vote at the council’s next meeting June 5.