It sounds like a crazy idea, but Baltimore County might soon be giving tax payer money to candidates running for County Council or County Executive — but only if voters approve. A bill passed by the Council recently adds a charter amendment to the 2020 ballot asking citizens if they support the creation of a Citizen’s Election Fund that candidates for county office could choose to avail themselves of.
The charter amendment is intentionally silent on details like who would be eligible for the fund, how much it would pay, and what strings would be attached. Such details are left to the council to decide if the amendment is approved.
Politicians are not especially popular in the United States these days, and the idea of giving them hard earned tax payer dollars may be a hard sell. But here’s the thing: elections are expensive, and that money has to come from somewhere. County Executive Olszewski raised over $2 million dollars on his election campaign, and county council candidates typically spend in the region of $60,000 in a competitive race. If you are at all worried about whom politicians are most interested in pleasing, you should pay close attention to where that money is coming from, and what pressure elected representatives feel they are under to ensure that money keeps flowing.
Raising money is hard work. If a deep-pocketed business man offers to bankroll a campaign, with the promise of more to come from his friends, that’s a hard request to turn down. It’s even harder if the candidate knows his opponent receives the same offer. The trouble with such money is that the candidate may feel the donations come with strings attached, and may feel pressured to vote accordingly.
Voter concern about this pressure wouldn’t be paranoia, either. Baltimore County is a place with a reputation for kick backs and shady deals. Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, had to resign after being indicted for corruption based on his time as Baltimore County Executive. His immediate successor, Democrat Dale Anderson, was later convicted on 32 counts of conspiracy, extortion and tax evasion. Our county’s history is hardly squeaky clean.
The fear that elected representatives would be more worried about pleasing their donors than their constituents has prompted a number of programs for public financing of elections nationwide. Candidates for both US President, and Maryland Governor, can receive matching funds for their campaigns. A presidential candidate can receive up to 150 million if they agree to certain conditions. Public financing of presidential campaigns was common until 2008, when then-candidate Obama opted to refuse public financing because part of the agreement would have limited how much he could spend.
Campaigns for Maryland governor can also avail of public funds. The rules are a bit complicated, but candidates can be part-funded by the state if they agreed to spend less than $2.8 million on their campaign.
Around the country, enthusiasm is growing for public financing at a local level. Cities from Berkeley, CA, Seattle, WA, and New York to Albuquerque, NM, and Denver, CO have public financing for their elections, often approved by landslide majorities. Here in Maryland, Baltimore County would be in good company, joining Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City. It’s clear that public financing is an idea whose time is coming.
County Executive Olszewski estimates a fund for Baltimore County Council elections would cost a little over $4 million per election, or approximately $1.30 per resident per year. This is a tiny amount compared to the $3,617 million total budget of the county. There’s an old saying that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. If you believe in Democracy, maybe its time we consider making a contribution.