Supporters for the new campaign finance system in Howard County put on an impressive display Wednesday night (April 19) at the Howard County Council.
Nearly 100 people , many wearing red “Yes on A” T-shirts showed up in support, including U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who spoke at a press conference outside the council building before the hearing. Of the 21 speakers at the hearing, only one was against Council bill 30. The council members asked very few questions and will discuss the issue at their work session meeting Monday morning April 24 before a possible vote May 1.
For those not familiar with this issue, CB30 would implement the will of Howard County voters who approved the campaign finance reform program last November. The bill would create a small donor system for candidates who choose to participate that would limit donors to a maximum of $250 each for a four-year cycle. Using a taxpayer fund in the county general budget, the county would match the first $150 donated in varying proportions, which would mean each $150 gift would equal $600 for county council candidates and $750 for those running for county executive. The county would put aside roughly $600,000 in the $1.1 billion annual budget each year to have enough on hand to pay the matches. The bill, CB30, is available to read on the county council web site under current legislation.
“Money has too much influence on our elections, Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, one of the good government groups that sponsored the referendum, told the five county council members at the hearing. The new system would “re-engage the community in the election process,” by encouraging small donors, widening the field of possible candidates, and eliminating multi-thousand dollar gifts from special interests. The bill would prohibit candidates taking part from accepting money from PACs, corporations or unions, and the $5,000 to $6,000 donations which have already supplied $200,000 of the total $1 million raised toward county executive Allan Kittleman’s re-election effort next year.
The bill calls for the new system to start in 2022, though several speakers at the hearing, including Linda Wengle, President of the Howard County League of Women Voters, advocated for trying to start the system next year, if possible. Maureen Evans Arthur, President of the Columbia Democratic Club, told the council members that the new system would also lead to more participation in government by women and minorities, along with people with lower incomes. That has been shown true already, she said, in Arizona and Connecticut, which already use this system. In Maryland, Montgomery county is set to use the system in the 2018 elections.
David Bazell, a member of Progressive Maryland, said objections to using taxpayer money to fund elections is the “wrong question.” The right one, he said, is “should we let people with lots of money fund elections?”
The only negative voice belonged to Bernard Noppinger, a Democrat who said he once ran for county council, spending only his own money. He spent $721, he said, and lost 2 to 1. He called the citizens election fund idea unconstitutional and said it also violates the county charter. “You can’t take a taxpayers’ money and give it to another candidate,” he said.
David Marker said he considered running for county council in 1986, but even then concluded he didn’t have enough financial support to make a competitive race. Grace Kubofcik, a long time leader in Howard’s League of Women Voters, pointed to low turnouts for state and county primary elections. In 2010, only 21.4% of registered voters actually cast ballots and in 2014 only 19.73% turned out.
CB30, she said, would encourage more participation, especially by independent candidates. Independents now represent 17.3% of the electorate in the county.
Councilman Greg Fox, the lone Republican member and an opponent of CB30, pointed out that the county council districts are gerrymandered, meaning that candidates need less money to run, except in District 1 covering Elkridge and Ellicott City, where Democrats and Republicans are roughly even.
Other speakers warned that citizens are cynical about elections now, believing that it is a “pay to play” system and if nothing is done that will only get worse.
Karen Hobart Flynn, national director of Common Cause, which also backed the referendum campaign, said the citizens election fund system has been working well in Connecticut for a decade, where participation is more than 70 percent of candidates. “It has broad, bipartisan support” there, she said. “It gives more voice to those who don’t normally participate,” she said.
Although the bill is expected to pass, it will need at least four council votes to withstand a possible veto by county executive Kittleman, who is an opponent. Even if passed with a veto-proof majority, critics could still petition the issue back onto the ballot in 2018 for a second decision by voters.