Montgomery County Council Approves Public Campaign Financing System

Montgomery County Council Approves Public Campaign Financing System

Unanimous vote establishes ratio system of matching small contributions

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Councilmember Phil Andrews led the passage of the public financing bill

Provided photo via Phil Andrews

Councilmember Phil Andrews has eyed a local public campaign financing system since voters first elected him to the Montgomery County Council in 1998.

The former Common Cause Maryland executive director has long called for reducing the influence of money flowing to candidates from special interests, unions and developers.

Earlier this year he ran in the primary for county executive and refused to accept contributions from such sources. His $280,000 in campaign spending was dwarfed by his competitors Doug Duncan and Isiah Leggett who each spent nearly four times as much and didn't make similar commitments.

But with Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the council to establish a public campaign financing system in the county, Andrews may have paved the way for more candidates to feel free to shirk hefty donations from developers and unions in favor of donations of $150 or less.

The legislation, sponsored by Andrews, enables candidates running for county executive and the council to receive matching contributions from a public fund on individual contributions between $5 and $150 from county residents.

Here’s how it will work: Candidate must file a notice of intent to use the public fund before collecting qualifying contributions. Candidates must hit a minimum threshold to begin receiving matching contributions: $40,000 for a county executive candidate, $20,000 for an at-large council candidate, and $10,000 for a district councilmember. The threshold is meant to ensure that only viable candidates, who show an ability to raise funds from many individuals, can begin to receive public funds.

Once candidates hit the minimum threshold, they can begin receiving matching contributions from the public fund. And this is where it can get complicated: County executive candidates can receive $6 for each dollar of the first $50 of a qualifying contribution, then $4 for each dollar of the second $50 and $2 for each remaining dollar of the maximum contribution. This means a $50 contribution from a local resident to a publicly funded county executive campaign would be worth $300, while a $150 donation would be worth $600.

For council candidates, the matching funds are a little smaller: $4 for each dollar of the first $50, $3 for each dollar of the second $50 and $2 for each remaining dollar.

The catch is that candidates who choose to use this method of financing a campaign are prohibited from accepting an individual donation more than $150.

The council plans to appropriate funds to a public campaign fund, which would be in place for the 2018 election cycle.

“The goals of this plan are to reduce the influence of big money in county elections and on county public policy, encourage more residents to participate in county elections and expand opportunities for more candidates to run for county office who do not have access to big contributions from interest groups or individuals,” Andrews said in a statement.

Councilmembers thanked Andrews for his hard work on the bill, which required lobbying of the General Assembly to give the county the authority to reform campaign finance rules.

The key remaining question is what the public financing will cost taxpayers.

Joseph Beach, the county’s director of finance, wrote in a report to the council the cost for the 2010 elections would have been more than $9.6 million if all candidates used public financing; while the 2006 elections would have cost as much as $13 million. However, it’s not clear if this analysis was based on the amendment that only contributions from county residents would be matched or if the analysis accounted for all contributions between $5 and $150.

County executive candidates would be eligible to receive a maximum of $750,000 in public funds, at-large candidates could receive a maximum of $250,000 and district council candidates can receive up to $125,000.

Common Cause Maryland estimated that the 2014 primary would have cost taxpayers about $2.5 million in public financing. The advocacy group hailed the passage of the council bill.

“Voters expect public officials to make decisions that advance the public interest,” Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said in a statement. “Voluntary small-donor, public-financing systems like the one before the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday put big ideas, not big money at the center of our elections and make it possible for people of modest means and lacking connections to established power structures to run and win elections.”

With the council vote, Montgomery becomes the first county in the state to enact a law creating a public financing fund for elections. The state already has its own system for statewide elections.

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