In an attempt to diminish the influence of wealthy political donors and force candidates to spend more time talking to voters, a Baltimore City Council member introduced legislation Monday to establish a system of public financing for city campaigns.
Councilman Kristerfer Burnett's charter amendment bill is the first step toward creating a fund that would provide matching public funds for money individual donors contribute to candidates.
If the bill is approved by the council, voters would be asked in November whether to change the city charter to allow for public financing and to create an 11-member commission to oversee the public money available for candidates.
Burnett said he hopes public financing would change how candidates run their campaigns, allowing more time for community interaction and less effort for fundraising.
"The thinking behind it is to really help candidates run campaigns that are focused on engaging with voters and hearing their ideas," he said.
Under the bill, only candidates who agree to accept individual donations of less than $150 would be eligible for matching funds from the city. Individuals currently can contribute up to $6,000 to a local political campaign.
The proposal would offer qualifying candidates some multiple of an individual's donation. Supporters propose that donations of up to $25 would be boosted seven times — so a $10 donation would draw $70 in public funds. The multipliers would diminish as donations increase in size.
Supporters say making public money available to candidates would diminish the power of rich donors, interest groups and labor unions. And by boosting small contributions, supporters of the idea hope to make giving to campaigns more appealing to lower-income residents.
The bill — co-sponsored by eight other council members — calls for establishing a revenue source for the proposed "Fair Election Fund" through an annual budgeted allocation, dedicating certain fines, fees and surcharges, and grants or donations.
The council would have to consider another piece of legislation to make funds available. That legislation is expected to be introduced in coming weeks.
Burnett, who won office for the first time in 2016, said he struggled at first to raise money and didn't know many people who could make those maximum contributions. As his campaign became more competitive toward Election Day, Burnett said, he spent more time raising money.
The cost of running for election in Baltimore spiked in the 2016 election. Candidates for mayor spent $9 million, up from a more typical total of about $3 million, with the victor, Mayor Catherine Pugh, spending more than $2 million.
Montgomery County enacted a similar public financing system in 2014. It is being used for the first time in elections there this year.
To qualify for matching funds in Montgomery County, county executive candidates must not accept more than $150 from individual donors and they have to raise $40,000 from at least 500 donors. They can then receive up to $6 for each dollar they raise privately.
County council candidates must raise $10,000 from at least 125 people to qualify to receive up to $4 in public funds for every dollar they raise
State election records show 40 Montgomery County candidates have signed up to use the system to finance their campaigns.
If the City Council approves a fund in Baltimore, public money would become available to candidates starting in 2024.