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Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, says the state needs to modernize and expand the law for public financing of elections. Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan used public funds to finance his successful campaign, but the account is running low. (File photo)

Hopes of replenishing gubernatorial fund face uphill battle

Finding a way to replenish the program that funded the gubernatorial campaigns of Democratic Del. Heather R. Mizeur and Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan will top the wish list of those who advocate for limiting the effect of special-interest money in state elections.

Ironically, the future of the fund could be in jeopardy due to a lack of money. Advocates say now is the time to update the law, which dates back to 1974, and to ultimately expand it to state legislative races.

“There is some hope for it,” Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said of the fund. “But, we do need to modernize the law.”

Annapolis-SummitMaryland’s Fair Campaign Financing Act, passed in 1974, originally provided for matching funds for all statewide, legislative and local races. The scope of the law was narrowed 12 years later to focus solely on gubernatorial races.

To qualify, candidates must agree to not spend more than roughly 30 cents per state resident. Funding for the program came from a voluntary tax form check-off.

Throughout the act’s history, the special fund it created rarely reached a functional level, according to a 2004 report of a legislative commission appointed to study the issue. “This is primarily because a tax add-on system was used as the sole source of funding,” the report concluded.

Prior to 2014, the last candidate to use the fund was Ellen Sauerbrey, a Republican delegate from Baltimore County who ran for governor in 1994. For the 20 years, the state’s public financing account sat unused.

Over that time, the account grew to a total of $4.6 million by virtue of roughly $100,000 contributed annually through state tax form check-off that allowed residents to donate extra money via their tax payment or a reduction in their refund.

That check-off, however, was removed in 2010.

“For the last 20 years everyone thought public financing was dead in Maryland, and clearly everyone was wrong,” said Del. Eric G. Luedtke, D-Montgomery County.

“We know public financing can work.” Luedtke said. “Not just because Hogan won but because Heather Mizuer ran a strong campaign. We have a strong argument on our side.”

A broken promise

Finding a way to replenish the state’s public financing account will be foremost on the minds of watchdog groups and legislators alike.

“We can’t have a broken promise out there for candidates,” said Bevan-Dangel.

Bevan-Dangel believes that the effort to bolster the fund will have the support of Hogan, who received nearly $3 million from the fund — nearly two-thirds of the $4.3 million spent directly by the Hogan campaign to defeat Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who spent roughly three times as much.

Hogan did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the money spent by the Hogan campaign, Del. Heather R. Mizuer received nearly $800,000 in public financing, which leaves the state account with roughly $1 million — hardly enough for one candidate for a primary and general election contest.

Given the state budget woes, including a projected budget deficit of more than $1 billion over the next 18 months, it seems unlikely that Hogan would want to make additional money from the state’s general fund available in the near future.

“There’s a range of options available,” Luedtke said.

Luedtke said he favors a plan that would return the check-off to the tax return — an option not favored by some environmental groups that also use the check-off donation system. He also proposed using revenue from fines assessed for campaign violations. Luedtke said moving that money from the general fund to the public financing account could add an additional $250,000 annually.

“There’s a real legal nexus between the fines and using them for publicly financed campaigns,” Luedtke said.

Even so, both of those changes would only add $1.4 million by the 2018 election.

Arizona tacks on a surcharge to its fines, but Luedtke said such a charge in Maryland “is probably beyond where we want to go.”

Bevan-Dangel said modernizing the law to remove the cap on expenditures and encouraging so-called small donations would augment the state fund.

Luedtke sponsored such a bill, similar to a New York City law, last year. Under the proposal, candidates would agree to forgo donations from corporations, political action committee, and slate transfers and not accept donations of more than $250 per person and meet minimum contribution thresholds based on the office sought by the candidate.

Donations of up to $50 would be matched 5 to 1 while donations of more than $200 would be eligible for a 3-to-1 match.

Montgomery County passed a similar law earlier this year for local elections.

The proposed state law died in committee last year but Luedtke and Bevan-Dangel are hopeful.

“People are really frustrated by the current system and are going to expect their candidates to be publicly funded,” Bevan-Dangel said.

‘Tweaking around the edges”

Advocates of campaign finance reform say their efforts invariably will be limited because of the impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission.

In that case last year, the court ruled that federal limits on aggregate donations were unconstitutional. The ruling, while on a federal law, ultimately struck down Maryland’s aggregate limit of $10,000 per individual in a four-year cycle.

Under state law that went into effect this year, donors are limited to $6,000 per candidate but can donate to as many candidates as they wish in any four-year election cycle.

“We’re operating in a really difficult environment where the Supreme Court has made it difficult to return the voice in politics to the individual,” Luedtke said. “We’re really just going to be tweaking around the edges.”

The most important of the tweaks would be changes to increase public transparency.

Bevan-Dangel said her group favors efforts to require large donors to publicly disclose contributions within 48 hours, similar to those made to independent expenditure and ballot issue groups.

“We need transparency in reporting,” Bevan-Dangel said. “We have to have it.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This is the eighth in a weekly series of stories by The Daily Record highlighting issues in the upcoming General Assembly session in preparation for the Annapolis Summit, a two-hour program on Jan. 30 featuring the state’s top political leaders. All of The Daily Record stories in the series will be available on our website, TheDailyRecord.com

The summit will be hosted by Marc Steiner, whose “The Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA 88.9 FM at 10 a.m. weekdays is broadcasting a weekly feature on the same subjects as the newspaper series. The show also will be posted at steinershow.org.