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Fair Election Fund Bill Would Give Public Money To Candidates Who Cap Private Donations At $150

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Last fall, Baltimore voters approved a public financing fund for elections throughout the city. Now, the City Council is considering a bill that spells out the rules and regulations for that fund.

The bill, whose proponents say aims to give candidates who don’t receive hefty checks from corporations a fighting chance, would give qualifying mayoral campaigns up to $1.7 million each in taxpayer money.

In order to qualify and tap the fund, candidates cannot accept donations larger than $150.

The fund, which received about 75 percent of the vote in November, has been a grassroots effort from its very beginning, said Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who introduced the bill at Monday night’s council meeting.

“We've had a very rough patch over the last few months related to campaign finance issues here in City Hall. I think we all know what those issues are,” the councilman said, referring to Catherine Pugh’s resignation in the wake of self-dealing allegations and FBI and IRS raids.

“I want to make sure that regular people who don't have access to big money, big developers, who don't have a whole lot of friends who can write $6,000 checks without blinking an eye, have a competitive chance to winning a local election,” Burnett said.

Other members of the all-Democrat council have co-sponsored the bill, including Bill Henry, Ryan Dorsey, John Bullock, Zeke Cohen, Shannon Sneed, Sharon Middleton, Danielle McCray, Mary Pat Clarke, Edward Reisinger and City Council President Brandon Scott.

In the Baltimore 2016 election, the average campaign donation from corporations was more than $1,400, while the average donation from individuals was more than $4,000, according to Demos’ analysis of Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System data.

And those donations came from only a small portion of Baltimore voters. About half of all Baltimore households make $44,000 or less per year. More than 80 percent of the donors in 2016 make more than that – and nearly half of them make more than $100,000 annually.

“Baltimore's democracy has long been dominated by a powerful donor class that doesn't represent the views of everyday people, said Emily Scarr, the director of the Maryland chapter of the Public Interest Research Group. “Baltimore's donors are more likely to be wealthy white and male and have different political views than the rest of the population. Corporate donations dominate our elections.”

She said by limiting donations to candidates who want to tap into the public fund, to $150, the program “will put small donors at the center of our elections and ensure that everyone else has more or less equal opportunity to influence our elections.”

Candidates for different offices would have a different set of fundraising rules under the bill.

Candidates for mayor must raise at least $40,000 from at least 500 donors to qualify. Council president candidates must raise $15,000 from at least 250 donors. Candidates running for city comptroller or any of the council’s 14 seats must raise $5,000 from at least 50 donors.

Mayoral candidates who reach their qualifications will receive an automatic, one-time “qualifying boost” of $200,000. Council president candidates who hit their qualifications will receive $50,000. 

Accepting a donation larger than $150 disqualifies any candidate from receiving cash from the fund. 

Under the bill, the fund would match every dollar of donations of up to $25 with $9 from the fund and would match larger donations of $75 for mayoral and city council president campaigns and $50 for comptroller or city council member campaigns with smaller amounts of money.

The fund’s matching contributions are capped at $1.5 million for mayoral candidates, $375,000 for City Council president candidates, $200,000 for comptroller candidates and $125,000 for candidates running for a City Council seat.

Those caps do not include the boosts for mayoral and city council president campaigns.

The bill, introduced Monday, did not specify how the fund will be paid for. Burnett plans to introduce a separate piece of legislation to specify that funding at a later date.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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