By Megan Poinski
After remaining untouched for years — and most likely just collecting interest this campaign season — Gov. Martin O’Malley and the legislature raided a $5.6 million fund that allows gubernatorial candidates to get campaign finance help from taxpayers.
Called the Fair Campaign Financing Fund, it has been receiving contributions from taxpayers — but mostly just collecting interest — since 1975, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections. In the 35 years it’s been on the books, the fund has only been tapped into during the 1994 campaign.
Proposals to do more with public campaign financing — like increasing the amount that gubernatorial candidates can receive, or creating a public campaign finance program for General Assembly candidates — have been talked about in Annapolis over the last few years. None has become law.
In the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2010, the General Assembly said the rarely used gubernatorial fund “cannot operate as originally contemplated.”
The recently passed bill closes the door for the Fair Campaign Financing Fund to receive more direct contributions. Starting with the 2010 state income tax form, taxpayers will not have the option to add a donation to the fund to their taxes, which had been the fund’s only direct source of revenue. However, the money in the fund can still accrue interest.
The Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act didn’t just close off new donations to the fund. It also withdraws almost half of the money currently in the account to use for elections and voting — such as the purchase of optical scanning equipment — though DeMarinis said no money has been transferred from the fund yet.
Ryan O’Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, has been pushing for public campaign finance reform in the state for years — specifically establishing a system of public funding for General Assembly candidates. He said he had hoped something would be in place for this year’s election, but finds what the General Assembly did instead to be “inexplicable.”
“The leadership of the General Assembly completely failed to pass campaign finance reform when it was most needed,” he said.
Of the $5.6 million in the Fair Campaign Financing Fund, a maximum of almost $2.7 million was redirected through the BURFA — the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, that amends scores of laws to help balance the budget.
A maximum of $2 million is earmarked for the purchase of an optical scan voting system. An additional $150,000 will be used on a comprehensive study on procurement, reliability and costs of that system. And a final $500,000 is for the State Board of Elections for an online campaign finance reporting system.
According to the law, however, a minimum balance of $1 million must remain in the Fair Campaign Financing Fund.
Strict rules about how to qualify for funding, as well as an austere spending cap for candidates who get the money have likely dissuaded most gubernatorial candidates from using the Fair Campaign Financing Fund through the years, DeMarinis said.
“Our law has it pretty well spelled out: This is what it is. This is the money you will get. This is the money that you will spend,” DeMarinis explained.
However, the remaining money may not just sit idle and collect interest this campaign season, DeMarinis said he’s had a couple inquiries about getting the money this year from candidates. Any candidate — even those running write-in campaigns — is eligible to apply to use the money.
Qualifying for public money is tied to a candidate’s independent fundraising, comes with a spending limit.
The long-standing law says a candidate can long spend 30 cents per person in Maryland — about $2.3 million — an amount that DeMarinis said doesn’t go very far in a statewide governor’s race. In 2006, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich together spent over $33 million.
To even apply for the taxpayer money, a candidate has to have already raised 10 percent of it — about $230,000 this year. According to election law, this seed money must be donated by individuals, and no donation can exceed $250.
“The idea is to show that you have a broad range of support for your candidacy,” DeMarinis said.
The only general election candidate ever to use the money was Republican Del. Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994 in which she was vastly outspent by Democratic Prince George’s County Executive Parris Glendening, but lost to him by less by than 6,000 votes.