Thursday, February 04, 2010

Thinking Locally: An Alternative Path to Campaign Finance Reform in Maryland

By Ryan Spiegel, Gaithersburg City Council Member.

All of the rallying around “open government” efforts in Annapolis this year is a welcome development – from new rules that post committee votes online to bills that would require streaming video of hearings. But despite all of this attention to government reform, little is being said about the chances of passing a voluntary public campaign financing system this year. Supporters are already aware of how painfully close the Generally Assembly came to passage of campaign finance reform during the 2009 legislative session in Annapolis, after years of stagnation. And with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, people are once again lamenting the lopsided influence of money in our political process.

Public campaign financing has been proven to work in states like Arizona and Maine, and if we can’t get a bill through the morass in Annapolis, it’s time to start thinking about another way to implement public campaign financing in Maryland: Look to our cities and towns.

Elections for State and County offices (including Baltimore City, which is the legal equivalent of a County) are governed solely by State election laws and rules. But municipalities are free to create and change their own election and campaign finance laws. I have confirmed this with two attorneys who are experts on municipal law in Maryland.

We all learned in high school civics class that our dual sovereignty system of government encourages states to be laboratories of innovation, particularly when the federal government is reluctant to embrace change. By the same token, Maryland has more than 150 cities and towns that can serve as laboratories of innovation for the Counties and the State.

Shortly after I was elected to the Gaithersburg City Council in 2007, I proposed a voluntary public campaign finance system, but there has been little appetite for it among my colleagues.

Gaithersburg serves as an interesting case study:

Recent history indicates that a successful campaign for Gaithersburg’s City Council costs about $5,000 or $6,000, a mere fraction of the amount needed to run for the General Assembly or County Council, making it all the more feasible to initiate campaign finance reform at the municipal level.

Gaithersburg is one of the largest municipalities in the State, with 60,000 residents. It should be safe to assume that a campaign in other municipalities, the vast majority of which are far smaller than Gaithersburg, would be even less expensive. As far as budgets go, Gaithersburg’s annual budget is approximately $50 million. Even in these tough economic times, setting aside a small fund of, say, 10 to 15 thousand dollars a year for a voluntary public campaign finance system would be a drop in the bucket – three-hundredths of one percent of the overall budget. The City regularly approves contracts for ten times or even one hundred times that amount for municipal services and equipment. Remember, elections are only held every other year, so budgeting 10 to 15 thousand dollars a year would generate a fund of 20 to 30 thousand for each election cycle, enough to provide a public financing option for as many as six candidates. It is, of course, highly unlikely that so many candidates would be interested in a public financing option. The 2007 election in Gaithersburg, which followed a very rare retirement of all three incumbents, attracted seven candidates. That was unusual. In 2009, there were only five candidates for three spots, including the three incumbents.

And even if a large number of candidates registers to run, some of them will likely choose not to take advantage of public financing – perhaps for ideological or political reasons, or perhaps because they believe they can raise more money via private contributions. The public financing option is, of course, voluntary. There may be years when most or all of the accumulated pool of public funds remains untouched, so it can carry over to be used in future years without the need to budget additional money for it. So a public financing system at the municipal level would carry a very small price tag, considering the tremendous benefit it could deliver in the way of open government.

Critics have raised the concern that those who aren’t really serious about running would suddenly jump into races, knowing that a “free” chunk of cash is available to them under a public financing system. There are many ways to safeguard against this problem. First, in Gaithersburg, all candidates are required to submit a petition signed by at least 100 residents in order to be certified as a valid candidate. That’s harder than it sounds, and the effort already operates as an effective disincentive for people who are not serious about running. The 100-signature petition may already be enough to weed out the non-serious folks, and anyone who succeeds in submitting a valid petition approved by the City’s Board of Supervisors of Elections could be presumptively considered eligible for public campaign financing.

Second, some proposals for public financing, such as Common Cause’s proposal for the General Assembly, would require candidates to raise a certain amount of money in small-dollar donations to prove they are “viable” before they would be able to access public funds. And, of course, accepting public funds would come with various restrictions, such as a prohibition against raising or using additional funds from private donors. The trade-offs and limitations would discourage some candidates from selecting the public funding, and would prevent the public funding system from being perceived as a boondoggle.

Existing rules already require that all candidates, whether they use public financing or not, must account for all contributions and expenditures with proper documentation and regular public reports – subject to occasional audits. It’s not like someone can spend their campaign funds on a hot tub for their house. And even if someone were so insidious as to abuse campaign funds, there’s no reason why a public system would be any more susceptible to that sort of fraud than a private system. Someone can raise cash from private donors and still spend it on a hot tub. Civil and administrative penalties, as well as the criminal justice system, already provide ways to punish violators.

Meanwhile, the benefits are many. Qualified candidates who otherwise might be discouraged from running because they do not have the political and financial networks to raise money in the private sector would feel empowered to run a viable campaign based on their ideas and their credentials. Candidates from poor and underrepresented communities would have more of a fighting chance. Some incumbents are queasy about the idea of giving their challengers a free war chest. But in states and cities that already have public financing systems, the vast majority of incumbents still win reelection. So our incumbents shouldn’t worry too much. Besides, competition is healthy for democracy. And it’s probably not fair to characterize a reasonable sum as a “war chest.”

Voters often complain of the excessive influence of special interest money in the election process. In Gaithersburg, we have recently enacted several incremental reforms to be proud of: posting campaign finance reports online, ensuring that candidates cannot commingle funds or use campaign funds to pay fines, and limiting the overall amount that any person can contribute in a given election cycle, among others. But a voluntary public campaign financing system could level the playing field between the People and the special interests, and allow good candidates to have a real shot at victory where they otherwise wouldn’t. It could free up our elected officials to spend more time on policy, governance, and constituent needs than on raising dollars. Who would candidates be accountable to for their funds? The public!

If the State can’t get its act together on public campaign financing, it’s time for municipalities to show the State that voluntary public campaign financing can work.