In the public financing of elections, as in much legislation, the devil is in the details. And the legislation proposed by outgoing Councilmember Phil Andrews has a lot of details, so it can be hard to keep up.
During the Government Operations Committee’s review of the proposal, Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer sponsored an amendment that altered the public financing bill in a crucial way.
The original bill allowed only donations made within Montgomery to be matched by public funds. Hans’s amendment eliminated that limitation so that donations made anywhere in the U.S. would be matched by County funds as outlined in the law.
Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro voted for the amendment, and Councilmember Cherri Branson voted no. Of course, the full Council can reconsider the issue when it takes up the bill.
The argument against the change is that it makes it easier for individuals who don’t live in Montgomery County to influence the outcome of our elections. The amendment also aids the many MoCo residents who have good DC networks but fewer County ties. It further augments the power of interests within the County who have the ability to gather checks from people elsewhere.
For the other side of the argument, I asked Hans to explain why he sponsored the amendment:
I’m a strong supporter of publicly-funded elections and I am confident that this system will help revolutionize Montgomery County politics. As I supported the bill at committee last week, I proposed several amendments to strengthen it and make it more attractive to potential candidates.
[One] amendment removes the requirement that donors be county residents, because I support a limited amount of fundraising from outside of the county. I believe the most important goal of this bill is to give candidates a viable alternative to raising large donations from corporations and special interest PACs.
In Montgomery County, we are part of a large metropolitan area where many people grew up somewhere else, and many residents work outside of the County. As any first time political candidate can attest, a lot of initial fundraising comes from family, friends, colleagues–the people that know you best and support you because they believe you will be a great public servant. Removing this base of support from the matching system risks making public financing a nonviable option for some candidates, and they will either opt-out or not be able to run a competitive campaign.
At the same time, my proposal retains the provision that only in-county donations count towards the qualifying thresholds. This will ensure that no candidate can base their campaign on out-of-county supporters. In order to qualify, a candidate will have to have a huge base of support in the county, because the thresholds are appropriately high.
As is no secret, Hans is originally from California and has benefited from financial contributions from outside the County so cynics might say he knows of what he speaks. However, he makes good points here. Moreover, Councilmember Riemer is now announcing a proposed new change to the legislation that would limit the impact of the committee amendment:
I also plan to propose limiting the amount of money that can be matched for out-of-county donors, to 10% of the total — the current law in the Connecticut public finance system, a model that advocates have pointed to as an example on many points.
I think these measures make the system more attractive to potential candidates, and thus strengthen the system. The goal is to give candidates a good alternative to raising large checks from wealthy individuals, corporations, and PACs.
As I alluded in my original post on the bill, a balance is important to strike. On the one hand, goals include preventing any one interest or individual, particularly from outside the area, from gaining too much influence. But in order for the bill to work, the incentives to opt into the system need to be strong enough to dissuade candidates from just raising money on their own under the current arrangements.
As John outlined the other day, making hard for people to raise money can serve as a strong disincentive to opt in–not to mention result in the unintended consequence of increasing call time. No one wants candidates to spend even more time raising money rather than meeting with voters.
On the smart decision front, the County has already indexed the limits to inflation. This choice will help avoid the problem with the original Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which set fixed limits that inflated away before the were raised in 2002.
One major remaining flaw with the bill is that it fails to address the problem of self-funding candidates who can afford to drop hundreds of thousands of their own money on the race and avoid the system. There are solutions, such as substantially raising the match, so that candidates in the system find it easier to participate. The Council should address this problem when it takes up the bill.