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Baltimore City Council to consider using energy tax money for public campaign financing, gives approval to security camera rebate

The Baltimore City Council will consider devoting money generated by the energy tax to the public financing of political campaigns.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett introduced legislation Monday night that would require the city to dedicate $2.5 million to the Fair Election Fund by earmarking energy tax revenue that currently flows into the city’s general fund. It would not raise the tax.

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“If we’re going to restore trust in local government, we have to take the influence of big donors out of the equation and make sure that people with great ideas are the folks who are winning elections in Baltimore, not folks who have access to the most capital," Burnett said. "This is the final step to bringing fair elections to Baltimore City: Funding the fund.”

The Fair Election Fund, approved by voters via referendum in 2018, aims to limit big money’s influence in Baltimore politics by providing matching funds to qualified candidates for mayor, city council and comptroller who pledge to refuse contributions from corporations and PACS.

Candidates who tap into the fund also must forgo contributions larger than $150.

Progressive groups that fought for public campaign financing say they hope Monday’s bill introduction is a step forward in leveling the playing field in Baltimore politics. The new campaign finance system is expected to go into effect in time for the 2024 election cycle.

“Our current campaign finance system rewards candidates who can raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, from wealthy individuals and special interests," Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said in a statement. “That’s not how our democracy should work.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is “very supportive” of the Fair Election Funds’ intention, said spokesman Lester Davis.

But Davis said there is also a concern about how to pay for public campaign financing when the city is already facing enormous pressure to find millions of more dollars for education funding.

Maryland’s House of Delegates recently gave approval to a sweeping, expensive plan to revamp the state’s public schools based on recommendations by the so-called Kirwan Commission. That bill calls for Baltimore City to put $170 million more toward public schools by 2030.

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In a cash-strapped city, Davis said the mayor’s primary concern is finding money for schools.

“In a perfect world, we’d be able to do everything,” he said. “At a certain point, you have to have priorities.”

Also at Monday night’s meeting, the City Council gave final approval to legislation that will provide residents a rebate of up to $150 if they install a camera security system such as Ring or Nest, and register it with the city.

The bill aims to incentivize people to sign up for the police department’s CitiWatch Community Partnership program, a registry that holds information about where there are private surveillance systems and who owns them. If officers believe a person’s footage could be useful in solving a crime, police can then reach out to get a camera owner’s permission to access the video.

The cameras have already helped Baltimore police close cases, council members say.

The lead sponsor, Councilman Eric Costello, said the program “provides an opportunity for residents to do something about the public safety situation in their neighborhood.”

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Councilman Ryan Dorsey cast the sole vote against the bill, saying he doesn’t think the city “should be subsidizing surveillance.”

Young has said he’s excited to sign the bill into law.

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