Burnett offers his framework for publicly financed elections in Baltimore City

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Campaign signs from 2016. Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr.

Odds are you’re one of the nearly 128,000 Baltimoreans who last year voted for public financing of city elections, an offering city lawmakers say gives political candidates who aren’t getting max-limit checks from special interests a fighting chance to win an election.

But how much does a publicly financed candidate get? And just where would those dollars actually come from?

Just over half a year out since 75 percent of voters approved the creation of a Fair Elections Fund, we now have some idea. A bill from Kristerfer Burnett (D-8th District), to be introduced when the Baltimore City Council meets tonight, sets minimums and caps on how much candidates for mayor, comptroller and city council would receive in matching funds for small contributions from small-time donors (read: anyone who donates $150 or less to a campaign).

“We want to make sure that there’s a pathway for community leaders and people who are on the ground doing the real work to have a shot to win,” Burnett told Baltimore Fishbowl Monday. “We want to force the conversation back into the neighborhoods.”

Burnett, elected to his seat in 2016 when he replaced longtime former Councilwoman Helen Holton, offers the example of a woman who he says has given him exactly $8 twice so far during his current re-election campaign. “I want to make sure that if I was in this program, that I would use it to really match that level of contribution from a senior citizen that’s involved, that’s coming out to meetings… We want those kinds of donations to really matter.”

His proposal, sure to be debated and modified in committee, sets floors for small-time fundraising to weed out non-contenders from receiving public dollars for their campaigns. Mayoral contestants must collect at least $40,000 in donations from 500 donors; for council president, it’s $15,000 from 250 donors; and for comptroller or each of 14 district council seats, it’s $5,000 from 50 donors.

“There has to be some minimum,” explains Charlie Cooper, president of Get Money Out Maryland, a volunteer group that pushes for campaign finance reform. “You can’t just start giving away public funds to every single person who’s capable of filing an application at City Hall. You have to demonstrate that yes, I do have a base of support.”

Any candidate who takes a donation of $150 or more would be ineligible to receive public funds. The 2024 election cycle would be the first time any of this would apply.

Thereafter, the first $25 from every small contribution to candidates who qualify would be matched with $9 in public money for every dollar; the next $50 would get a $5 match for every dollar; and the final $75 would get a $2 match for every dollar. So, if someone were to give the maximum small-donor contribution of $150, a candidate would receive $625 in matching funds, plus the actual $150 for a total of $775.

Mayoral and council president candidates would also hit the ground running with a “qualifying boost” from an appointed Baltimore City Fair Election Fund Commission. The one-time bonus would be $200,000 for mayor’s races and $50,000 for council president races.

Boosts excluded, public financing would max out at $1.5 million for a mayoral candidate, $375,000 for council president, $200,000 for comptroller and $125,000 for hopeful council persons.

A viable Fair Elections Fund would need to bring in $2 million-$2.5 million per year, Burnett said. As for that earlier question—where would those dollars come from?—he expects that will be the most “hotly debated piece.”

Potential sources could include opt-in check boxes on water or property tax bills, akin to the philanthropic appeals customers get when they check out at a pharmacy or grocery store; philanthropies; the city budget ($2 million-$2.5 million represents about 0.8 percent of Baltimore’s general fund, Burnett said); or even paid fines resulting from paid campaign finance violations.

“We are trying to be as creative as possible,” said the councilman, who plans to introduce separate budget legislation in coming weeks.

This system is being proposed as a counter to the status quo in Maryland, where individuals can donate a maximum of $6,000 to an individual candidate in each election cycle.

An analysis by the left-leaning think tank Demos last year found the representation of campaign donors for mayoral and city council races in 2016 was heavily skewed, both racially and economically, from the city’s actual makeup. Whites accounted for 64 percent of all donors, while representing only 32 percent of Baltimore’s population, and nearly half of all donations coming from households with incomes of at least $100,000.

And that data dive didn’t even include political action committees, unions or other special interests. Supporters of public financing highlight the outsized influence of special interests on candidates.

“One of the most insidious trends in the era of big money is that candidates have a big incentive, without public campaign finance, to talk to just the biggest donors—just go talk to them and get as much as you can,” said Cooper.

A Fair Elections Fund is “not a total solution to the problem of wealthy special interests and corporate dominance of government,” he acknowledged, but “it is a way that citizens’ voices can mean a lot more… It helps make a government that’s actually focused on the interest of the broad population.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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