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Baltimore City Council considers awarding up to $1.7 million in public funds to mayoral campaigns

The Baltimore City Council began Monday to consider allowing mayoral campaigns to receive up to $1.7 million in public money, an effort to diminish the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals over the government. This 2016 photo shows City Hall.
The Baltimore City Council began Monday to consider allowing mayoral campaigns to receive up to $1.7 million in public money, an effort to diminish the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals over the government. This 2016 photo shows City Hall. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The Baltimore City Council began Monday to consider allowing mayoral campaigns to receive up to $1.7 million each in public money, part of an effort to diminish the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals over government.

Legislation being introduced by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett would set rules and benefits for candidates to use taxpayer money from a fund voters authorized last year. To receive money, campaigns would have to agree to cap donations from private backers at $150 apiece.

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Burnett said on the council floor Monday that the fund is designed to “reduce the impact that big money from big donors has on our elections here in Baltimore city.”

The idea behind the push — set forth in a preamble to the legislation — is to free candidates from having to seek big-dollar donations from corporations or other interests, who might then expect special treatment in return. It’s designed to give candidates more time to focus instead on persuading voters.

“Public officials should discharge their duties in an impartial manner, free from bias created by their own financial interests or, in the case of elected officials, the financial interests of those that may have supported them during their electoral campaigns,” the text reads.

The legislation is supported by a coalition of progressive advocacy organizations. Burnett has attracted 10 of the 14 other members of the all-Democrat council as sponsors.

Critics of public financing for elections say such funds cost taxpayers while failing to achieve the programs’ objectives of fostering more competitive campaigns and reducing the power of business interests.

The bill being introduced Monday will not determine how the program will be funded. Burnett said a second piece of legislation dealing with that will be developed later.

“I know that’s the million-dollar question — how we’ll pay for it,” Burnett said.

Public financing is not expected to be available until 2024 in Baltimore’s local elections.

The legislation would require mayoral candidates to raise at least $40,000 from 500 donors to qualify. Smaller amounts would be set for candidates for lower offices.

Mayoral candidates would receive a $200,000 “boost” when they qualify for the system; candidates for City Council president would get $50,000.

Qualified candidates also would then receive public money under a structure that would reward them in particular for receiving small donations. Each dollar of donations of up to $25 would be matched by $9 from the fund — making a $25 contribution worth $250.

The matching amount would diminish for larger donations.

For a mayoral or City Council president candidate, the maximum $150 private contribution would be worth $775. For comptroller and council candidates, it would be worth $625.

The public contributions would be capped: $1.5 million for mayoral candidates; $375,000 for people running for City Council president; $200,000 for comptroller candidates, and $125,000 for those seeking to join the City Council.

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In exchange, candidates using the fund would not be able raise more than $150 from each donor — except themselves or their spouses — and must forgo donations from corporations, political action committees and labor unions.

Emily Scarr, the director of Maryland’s branch of the Public Interest Research Group, said the rules for such funds have to be calibrated to allow candidates who use them to be competitive with those who rely on private donations. Democrat Catherine Pugh raised $3 million during her successful 2016 run for mayor.

“This will be a huge shift for the city and how things are run,” said Scarr, who helped draft the legislation.

The idea of public financing for local elections is being adopted around the state. Montgomery County had a similar fund for the first time in 2018 and Democrat Marc Elrich successfully used it in his primary and general election campaigns for county executive.

Howard and Prince George’s counties also have systems in the works and voters in Baltimore County will decide whether to start one next year.

Also, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan used the state’s public matching program in winning his first term in office in 2014.

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