As the Montgomery County Council heads on its monthlong August recess, a bill to establish public campaign financing remains unfinished, and some members are questioning what problems, if any, the reform bill solves.
Written by Councilman Philip M. Andrews, the bill would establish a public financing system for local elections by conditionally matching private contributions with public funds. The bill would allow candidates to receive public money to help fund their campaigns, but places limits on the size of contributions for candidates who accept it.
“The question is, ‘What is the problem that we’re solving?’” Councilwoman Nancy Floreen said.
All nine members of the council signed onto the bill when Andrews proposed it in February, but Council President Craig L. Rice said the June 24 primary left him questioning what the proposed reforms could accomplish. He noted that the bill would not stop a political action committee or independent expenditure committee from raising its own money and spending it on behalf of a candidate it supports.
Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg argued the reforms would, among other things, boost voter turnout, which was a low 16 percent of registered voters in the primary.
“Given the extremely low turnout in this election, it is clear that there needs to be changes made to how elections are conducted,” Andrews said.
By matching individual contributions, the bill encourages candidates to seek more individual contributors, providing a strong incentive for those who donate to vote, he said.
Not all his colleagues agree.
Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said there’s no connection between voter turnout and campaign finance, a sentiment Floreen shared.
“I don’t think the amount of money spent affects turnout,” said Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park.
Low voter turnout, she said, could also result from an electorate that is satisfied with its representation and governance.
While Councilman George L. Leventhal supports the bill and the changes it would make, he doubted if it would significantly affect turnout.
“I think [public financing] engages more donors in that small contributions become worth more,” he said. “But small donors are a small circle of politically active people.”
Candidates, though, would be able to spend less time dialing for dollars and more time engaging voters under a public financing system, said Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park.
Councilman Marc B. Elrich argued that the bill is needed to balance the large developer contributions made to some council candidates.
Proponents of national campaign finance reform often condemn large contributions by special interests, saying the donations influence votes.
Asked if similar special interest spending and influence is a local concern, Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park responded, “Are you serious? Have you looked at the numbers?”
Elrich, who eschews developer dollars, said developers have made significant contributions to some of his colleagues and believes that does influence decisions on the dais.
Regardless of who cuts him a check, Leventhal said, he does not vote with his donors in mind.
“Trying to pressure me is never a successful tactic,” he said. “I have always made every decision in what I believe is the public interest. I have never allowed a campaign contribution to cloud my judgment or change my thinking.”
For candidates who openly shun certain contributions from special interests, public financing has a unique appeal, Floreen said.
“For people who have made their mark by saying they don’t accept donations from PACs and things, it sort of makes them feel better,” she said. “These things sound good but once you read the details, there are questions: ‘What is the problem we are solving? Is it too much money spent?’ I don’t know. I certainly think it is worth a conversation.”
The bill is pending in the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.