Md. election bills under consideration: Expansion of public financing, limit on lobbyist contributions

Maryland lawmakers are considering multiple changes to election law during the 2022 session, including expansion of public campaign financing programs and limiting the influence of lobbyists. (Maryland Matters/Bennett Leckrone)

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Public campaign financing in Montgomery County has propelled candidates into the highest echelons of power at the county government level. And now state lawmakers are considering a bill that could lead to public financing opportunities to candidates for courthouse positions and county boards of education.

Five Maryland jurisdictions have enacted local public campaign finance laws since the General Assembly passed legislation allowing them to do so in 2013; only Montgomery County’s program has gone through an election cycle. Howard County’s program is being utilized for the first time this year.

House Bill 488, sponsored by Del. Jessica M. Feldmark (D-Howard), would allow local governments to expand public campaign finance programs to include more elected offices after the program is available for at least one election cycle to county council and county executive candidates.

Two county executives testified in support of the legislation during a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday: Howard County Executive Calvin B. Ball III (D) and Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D).

“Lack of access to raising campaign funds should not preclude candidates for other county offices who seek to serve their community,” Ball said.

Proponents of public campaign finance programs, which provide public matching funds for candidate contributions and generally prohibit donations from corporations or special interests, say such programs make it easier for political newcomers to challenge incumbents.

“We know that this will make our elections more competitive,” Olszewski said. “We also know this will encourage more women and minority candidates to run for offices.”

Ball and Olszewski both had a hand in enacting campaign finance legislation in their respective counties. Ball voted for the legislation when he was a county council member, and Olszewski made enacting a public campaign finance program a key issue when he was running for office in 2018.

County governments are currently allowed to set up public campaign finance programs for county executive and county council candidates. Under Feldmark’s bill, counties could expand their public campaign finance programs to include candidates for state’s attorney, sheriff, register of wills, judge and clerk of the Circuit Court, judge of the Orphans’ Court, or an elected member of the county’s board of education.

Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine noted that the bill would only allow counties to expand their public campaign finance programs after testing them with a smaller pool of candidates first.

“I think expansion after first use ensures that we’ve made fixes where needed and that we’ve got the proper funding in place,” Antoine said. “And again, I think what’s important here is that it’s up to the jurisdiction and whether or not they want to expand.”

Kevin Kinnally, the legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties, said the organization supports the legislation.

Montgomery County became the state’s first jurisdiction to enact a public campaign financing program in 2014, funding candidates four years later. Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County and Prince George’s county have all since enacted their own programs. Baltimore City will start funding candidates in the 2024 election; the programs in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties will launch with the 2026 elections.

On Monday, Republicans on the Anne Arundel County Council blocked a proposed charter amendment that could have set up a public campaign financing system if approved by voters.

Banning ‘pay to play’ in campaign contributions

Lawmakers are also looking to crack down on “pay to play” donations, or the practice of lobbyists and corporations donating to campaigns in hopes of receiving benefits from politicians.

House Bill 344, introduced by Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Montgomery), would generally ban regulated lobbyists, or people acting on their behalf, from contributing from their personal funds to a candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, or the General Assembly “if the regulated lobbyist is registered to lobby and influence action in the same branch of government to which the candidate seeks election.”

Lobbyists would still be allowed to donate to candidates for the General Assembly in the district where they live.

“Lobbyists are being paid to do a job and their livelihood is directly dependent on their relationships with lawmakers,” Palakovich Carr said Tuesday at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing. “Contributions made by lobbyists are not just to support a candidate but also to curry favor with that candidate.”

Palakovich Carr said lobbyists are already banned from serving as a candidate’s campaign treasurer, and are also prohibited under current state law from forwarding a candidate’s solicitation for contributions.

“We need to ask ourselves why it’s okay under current law for lobbyists to write a check to a candidate, but it isn’t okay for them to forward an email and ask someone else to write a check,” she said.

The bill also bans businesses that have a state contract of at least $200,000 from contributing to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller.

“Given that the members of the Board of Public Works directly decide on which state contracts are approved, such political contributions are a direct conflict of interest and would be considered by some as ‘pay to play,’” Palakovich Carr said.

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) questioned whether the bill would be constitutional, given that a majority of justices in the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision that restricting independent political spending from corporations and unions violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Palakovich Carr said Alaska, California, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina all currently have similar laws. She said California’s original total ban of lobbyist contributions was overturned, but lawmakers in the state enacted a narrower version that her own bill is modeled after.

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