Attorney General’s Office Says County Programs to Publicly Fund State Campaigns Would Be Legal

Bethesda delegate considering legislation for counties to finance legislative races


Published:

Del. Marc Korman

via Marc Korman's campaign website

The next step in publicly financed elections in Maryland could be counties funding the campaigns of delegates and state senators.

An attorney with the state’s Attorney General’s office notified a Bethesda delegate last week that she believes the General Assembly could legally pass legislation for counties to set up public financing options for state races in those counties.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Bethesda) asked for the office’s opinion as he considers introducing legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to allow counties to create the public funding option.

He said Tuesday that a statewide option for publicly funded campaigns—paid for by the state—would be preferable to county funding for state races. But he noted that a statewide public financing bill has failed to gain traction in the Legislature in recent years.

“It’s definitely preferable to have one statewide approach,” Korman said. “But failing that, this is a runner-up option.”

Korman had raised the question due to the possibility that counties might treat state campaigns differently—with some counties having public financing options for state candidates and others deciding not to set up programs.

However, Sandra Benson Brantley, the counsel to the General Assembly, wrote that local programs would not violate the Equal Protection Clause or the First Amendment rights of candidates as long as each candidate in a specific district had the same opportunity to use the program.

That would also apply to districts that include areas in two different counties, but only if both counties set up similar public funding programs.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said in an interview with Bethesda Beat Tuesday that providing county funds for state campaigns would be “extremely difficult for the county.”

“I don’t think the county should be funding state races,” Leggett said.

He noted that the county has a large state delegation—eight legislative districts send 24 delegates and eight state senators to Annapolis every year.

Already, the county has budgeted $11 million to publicly fund County Council and county executive candidates in the 2018 election. This election will be the first time candidates use the new system. It’s not immediately clear how the local public financing option would affect the election and Montgomery County politics in the future.

The county has seen a groundswell of local candidates signing up to qualify for matching county funds in the system. So far, 25 candidates have filed with the state Board of Elections to begin fundraising under the new system, which prohibits candidates from taking contributions of more than $150 or any donations from PACs, corporations, labor groups or party committees.

Adding state races could result in the county needing millions more for publicly funded state campaigns, straining an already stretched county budget.

Leggett said he’s not opposed to publicly financed campaigns, but if the county move forwards with the proposal, it should be subject to a referendum.

“I think it’s good to have public financing,” Leggett said. “The route to go would be to get the opinion of the people by putting it to a referendum.”

Korman said he has supported publicly financed campaigns before he was elected delegate in Bethesda-based District 16 in 2014. He said public financing gets elected officials to focus more on constituents rather than big-money contributors and helps improve public trust because residents fund campaigns.

The Legislature reconvenes in January for its 2018 session.

Korman said the next step is to draft a bill, improve it and build a coalition of supporters. But he also said he will advocate for a statewide option using state funds to publicly finance campaigns.

“My view is it’s better to do a statewide program,” Korman said. “This is to move the ball forward until that day comes. I think a lot of people are interested in finding ways to move forward with public financing.”

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