Maryland’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund has lived a long and tumultuous life since its creation in the 1970s, and members of the legislature, along with Gov. Larry Hogan (R), are looking to restore the fund to its former glory.
In 2014, Hogan was the first gubernatorial candidate in Maryland history to be elected using public funds through the FCFF. The program provides candidates with state funds if they agree to certain spending limits. Only gubernatorial candidates are eligible to receive public dollars.
The fund was created in the 1970s but its funding mechanism, a state income tax add-on, was stripped in 2010 due to lack of participation by candidates (until 2014, Republican Ellen Sauberbrey was the only prior participant, back in 1994). In 2014 both Hogan and Democrat Heather Mizeur used public finances for their campaigns, but Mizeur didn’t make it past the primary.
Mizeur collected about $780,000 in public funds. Between the Republican primary and the general election, Hogan used about $2.9 million in state money.
But following Hogan’s election, with no way to replenish the money that had been spent, the fund is almost barren.
In order to restore the fund he drained, Hogan signed a bill in 2015, sponsored by Del. Eric Luedtke (D) and Sen. Paul Pinsky (D) that reestablished the original source of funding – the income tax add-on – to replenish the account. The bill also required a variety of fines and late-fees collected by the Maryland State Board of Elections from candidates and other to be deposited into the fund.
But the new law simply didn’t replenish the fund quickly enough to be of any use this election cycle, and legislation since 2015 to secure an expanded and stable public campaign finance fund has gone nowhere.
Jared DeMarinis, director of Candidacy and Campaign Finance at the State Board of Elections, told Maryland Matters that as of August, the fund held approximately $2.9 million. Because of the expenditure limits on candidates who opt to use public financing, only about $2.6 million is available to candidates in 2018.
If a candidate were to utilize the FCFF, “there would be technically enough funds to fully fund a primary campaign, however there will not be enough to fund the general” election, DeMarinis said.
There are currently nine candidates running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the good government group Common Cause/Maryland, said that “one or two [candidates] reached out to the state about the program and how it worked, but when they found out there was only enough for one candidate, nobody moved forward.”
Many candidates have little interest in the program due to its limit on campaign expenditures, which is why the fund was created in the first place: to remove big money from politics. Because the cost of running for office has grown so great, the spending limit placed by the FCFF makes it difficult for publicly funded candidates to compete with their higher-spending opponents.
Hogan had more than $4 million in his re-election account as of mid-January, and many political professionals believe he could bank as much as $15 million next year.
Campaigns have gotten so expensive that “people are dropping literally millions of dollars into their races” Luedtke said.
Proponents of publicly financed campaigns warn that politicians will feel chained to the interests of their donors rather than the interests of their constituents if they don’t accept the matching funds. Luedtke said that another problem created by donor-funded elections is that politicians are “spending time raising money…they’re not spending their time doing their job, which is to improve the way government works for people.”
Beyond the state level, some counties have begun to implement publicly-funded campaign funds of their own.
Montgomery County has already successfully established a public election fund that makes the County Council responsible for appropriating funds into the account. According to the county government’s website, $6 million had been appropriated as of January 2017. The bill also requires candidates to only accept individual campaign contributions between $5 and $150, and prohibits them from accepting any donations from special interest groups like PACS or labor unions or corporate interests.
Additionally, Howard County voters approved a measure at the ballot in 2016 to establish the Citizens’ Election Fund. Bevan-Dangel said that Prince George’s County has a similar project in the works.
“The idea of citizen-funded elections gives people a lot of hope that they could reclaim their democracies and maybe candidates could listen to their communities – not their major donors,” she said.
Candidates have until Feb. 27 to apply for public campaign funding through the State Board of Elections – which coincides with the candidate filing deadline. So far there are no takers.