By Megan Poinski
In what has become an annual tradition, Del. Jon Cardin is sponsoring legislation to establish a fund that would finance General Assembly campaigns with public funds.
The bill was applauded by citizens’ and voter rights groups appearing before the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday. It has yet to win approval from both houses of the General Assembly. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that he “inherited” the bill from former Del. John Adams Hurson, who retired in 2005.
“This bill gives everyone who wants to be a part of the political process the freedom to do so,” Cardin said.
Cardin’s bill would create the Public Election Fund, which would receive all of the funds from the now-defunct (and rarely used) public financing fund for gubernatorial elections, as well as fees levied by the State Board of Elections, excess funds raised by candidates, and anything specifically allocated in the budget.
Candidates wanting to use the fund would need to qualify for it by raising $3,500 in “seed money.” Each campaign contributor could only give up to $250, though candidates and their spouses could each give $500.
Additionally, after getting the seed money, each candidate would need to raise at least $1,000 more. These funds would have to come from at least 350 donors in the district the candidate hopes to represent. In order to be counted, donors have to give at least $5.
The bill has pre-set spending limits for races, which are determined by whether the race is contested, and for the House of Delegates, by how many members are elected from the district. The maximum spending limit is $100,000, both for a contested Senate race and a contested race in a three-member House district.
Progressive advocates championed the bill. Joanna Diamond, legislative associate for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that this bill would go a long way to improve the relationship between elected officials and their constituents – and minimize questions about whether politicians are just pandering to large campaign donors.
“Public financing would make public officials more accountable to voters in general and less beholden to the often-narrow economic interests of a few big contributors,” Diamond said. “It would also allow public officials to do their jobs instead of raising money.”
Maine, Arizona and Connecticut all have similar public funding options for their state legislative branches, witnesses said. Maryland League of Women Voters President Nancy Soreng said that 54% of Arizona’s legislative candidates used public funds in 2008, and 80% of Maine’s legislative candidates took advantage of the public funds in last year’s election.
Progressive Maryland Executive Director Rion Dennis added that according to a 2009 Gonzalez Research poll, 67% of voters believe that big campaign contributions have a corrupting influence on state lawmakers. Additionally, 70% of voters think that reforms like the ones proposed in the bill would solve that problem, Dennis said.
Columbia resident Kenneth Stevens also supported the bill.
“This bill would have the desirable effect of limiting money interest in Maryland elections,” he said. “For that reason alone, it’s important.”