Republicans in Anne Arundel County Council on Monday blocked a charter amendment that, if approved by voters, would have implemented a public campaign finance system in the county.
A resolution presented by Council President Lisa Rodvien (D) on behalf of County Executive Steuart Pittman Jr. (D) would have enabled the creation of a public campaign finance system in the county. Since the legislation is a proposed charter amendment, the ultimate question of whether to implement the system would have been up to county voters in the November ballot.
The program would have been available to candidates for county council or county executive, or both, according to the resolution. If approved by voters, the exact details of the public campaign finance system would have been worked out by a commission and submitted for final approval by the county council.
The proposed amendment to the charter required five votes to pass, but the council was split along party lines. The four Democratic members voted for the resolution and the three Republican members voted against.
County Councilman Nathan E. Volke (R) questioned sending the issue to voters before knowing how much the program would cost the county.
“I think the problem for me is, ‘Hey, you made it, great. But what is the price? “said Volke.
Peter Baron, Pittman’s director of government relations, said he didn’t have an exact figure on the cost of a public campaign finance program in Anne Arundel County, but argued the benefits the outweighed the potential costs.
“It will cost a significant amount of money,” Baron said. “But what you get in our view is better government and more representative government, and that also has value.”
Jared DeMarinis, director of the state of Maryland’s electoral nominations and campaign finance division, said cost figures vary by county in Maryland that has already adopted the program. He noted that Montgomery County set up an $11 million public campaign finance program for the 2018 election, but failed to spend that full amount. Baron felt the cost would be lower for Anne Arundel County.
Proponents of public campaign finance systems, including Democratic county council members, say these programs make it easier to elect new candidates, as well as women and people of color, by providing matching funding for small donations.
“We’re overrepresented in the number of women on this body, which I’m a bit proud of, but we’re white,” Rodvien said ahead of the vote. “We have seven white members and that does not reflect our county.”
Several other jurisdictions in Maryland have public campaign finance programs: Montgomery County was the first to implement a program in 2014, and Baltimore City, Howard, and Prince George counties have all since adopted their own programs. Baltimore County Council members approved a fair election fund in December, though that program includes spending caps for participating candidates.
Public campaign finance systems in other jurisdictions in Maryland allow candidates to participate and generally prohibit participating candidates from taking money from major donors, corporations, and political action committees.
“One of the most important things about public campaign finance programs is that, especially when campaigns get more expensive with each cycle, they allow ordinary people to run on the power of their ideas instead of having to rely on wealthy interests,” county resident Anne Arundel Morgan Drayton, head of policy and engagement for Common Cause Maryland, said in a public hearing ahead of the vote.
Abby Root of the League of Women Voters of Anne Arundel County said public campaign funding would “level the playing field for candidates who may not have big donors.”
Anne Arundel County resident Kurt Svendsen said he supported the “general idea” of the resolution, but said the county’s 10-year charter review commission should have reviewed it. This panel is “responsible for conducting a thorough study of county government and recommending revisions to the charter as necessary,” according to the county. website.
“There are a number of important issues, not the least of which is the idea of asking a commission to calculate an annual amount needed to support such a system and requiring that amount to be included in the order. budget,” Svendsen said.
After the vote, Common Cause Maryland tweeted that the rejection was a “slight setback but not the end”.
Howard County fixes public finance technicality
Howard County Council voted unanimously on Monday to remove a technicality from the county’s public campaign finance system that proponents of fair elections say would discourage participation in the program.
The county’s public campaign finance law requires that an election be contested for a candidate to receive matching public funds. But a provision removed by members of the county council via emergency legislation at a Monday meeting stated that “contestation of an election shall be decided on the first Tuesday in August preceding an election”.
County officials interpreted the provision to apply to both primary and general elections, leading to county council member Deb Jung (D) – who didn’t get a lead challenger until December – being denied matching funds. The removed provision would have required Jung to have a primary challenger by August 3, 2021 for the June 28, 2022 primary in order to receive matching funds.
All five Howard County Council members sponsored the emergency bill. Chairman Opel Jones (D) also co-sponsored the legislation on behalf of County Executive Calvin B. Ball III (D).
The Howard County Citizens’ Elections Fund is matched on a tiered basis that prioritizes small donations. County council candidates who participate receive $5 for every $1 of the first $50 donated, $3 for every $1 of the second $50, $1 for every $1 of the third $50, and no matching funds for the remaining eligible donations.
A qualifying donation of $50, for example, would qualify for $250 in matching funds. A donation of $150 would yield the same $450 in matching funds as the maximum donations of $250. Jung qualified to receive more than $43,000 in matching funds, according to campaign finance documents.
Jung thanked county residents who urged county council members to make the change.
“It was our Howard County residents who made tonight happen,” Jung said.
Council member Christiana M. Rigby (D) defended the county finance department’s decision not to provide matching funds to Jung for technical reasons. Rigby noted that the county’s Citizens’ Election Fund Commission recommended the change to county council members in October, but said the first chance to make the change was in January.
“I believe the Treasury acted correctly by following the law,” Rigby said. “Our county departments should follow the laws as they are written. If laws need to be corrected, it is our responsibility as a legislative branch to do so.