Baltimore County Council greenlights fair election fund with spending caps

Baltimore County Council greenlights fair election fund with spending caps

Political hopefuls campaigning for local office in Baltimore County will now have a new financing tool at their disposal after the Baltimore County Council passed an amended bill authorizing a public financing program Monday night.

The council amended the bill — which passed 6-1, with Republican councilman Todd Crandell voting against — to impose caps on how much candidates using the fund may spend and to revise requirements for qualifying candidates.

County executive candidates who opt into the program would not be allowed to spend more than $1.4 million in a primary or general election. Those running for council may not spend more than $150,000.

By comparison, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. spent more than $2 million in his bid.

The legislation would require candidates for council and county executive to meet different eligibility qualifications and seeks to encourage candidates to ask more donors to give smaller amounts of money.

Local candidates must accept only donations from individuals of up to $250 and must refuse donations from political action committees, corporations and other candidates and political parties. Donations would be matched with public money on a sliding scale, with the match decreasing as donations reach larger and larger thresholds. There are also restrictions on family donations and loans.

The total public contribution payable to a certified candidate for the election cycle may not exceed $750,000 for a county executive candidate and $80,000 for a county council candidate.

An amendment also changed the thresholds candidates must meet to qualify for the program; those running for county executive must first earn $50,000 from at least 550 donors, and a council candidate would need at least $15,000 from 150 donors.

Samay Kindra, who sat on the Fair Election Fund Work Group that devised recommendations for the bill, said capping candidate spending could discourage candidates who want to use the public funding from running if they’re facing off with a privately-funded candidate who has no limitations on how much they can spend, Kindra said.

The amendment betrays a “misconception” about the bill, he added.

“The impetus behind the program is to change that source [of funding], to revert that source back to the people, back to our neighbors,” he said. “The impetus of the program was never to drive down the cost entirely of running elections.”

Olszewski, who made campaign finance one of his primary legislative priorities, said in a statement while he was “disappointed unnecessary limits have been added to this program, establishing this Fair Election Fund is an historic step forward in ensuring the volume of one’s voice does not depend on the size of their wallet.”

The county has estimated such a fund will cost about $4.3 million per election cycle. The bill approved Monday will also establish a nine-member Fair Election Fund Commission with members appointed to four-year terms from each of the seven councilmanic districts by the council and county executive, all approved by the council.

Voters approved the fund by referendum in last year’s election.