Attempting to strip away one of the major advantages of incumbency, the Prince George’s County Council is considering a measure to provide public financing of local elections. In a county where an incumbent has not lost a county seat in nearly 25 years, the measure could level the playing field for candidates who want to run, but lack financial backing.
Sponsored by District 1 Council Rep. Mary Lehman, who is term limited, the county is seeking to follow the State of Maryland and Howard and Montgomery counties with a public financing law. Presidential candidates also have the option of receiving public financing. If approved, the money would come from government resources. Proponents, including Lehman, believe it will encourage more people to become engaged in the political process where better-financed candidates usually win.
The Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee of the council held a briefing about the measure last week. The committee heard from a panel of experts about the benefits of public financing as well as some of the challenges that it may present.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who upset the better-financed Anthony Brown, did so in the 2014 election with public financing. In Montgomery County, at least 17 candidates have expressed interest in public financing with three qualifying, according to the board of elections.
“I think this is a great idea,” said local activist Earl O’Neal, who has worked on dozens of campaigns during the past four county elections. “Anything we can do to get more people involved in the political process is a good thing.”
Four years ago, a panel including County Councilman Mel Franklin helped developed legislation to allow Howard and Montgomery counties to enact similar provisions.
While some on the council expressed strong support for a public financing program, others expressed reservations with funding being a possible issue. Early estimates say public financing could cost county taxpayers $1-2 million per year, according to Jennifer Bevan-Dangle, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. She estimates that $1.5 million would be the cost of public financing. That comes on the heels of another $1 million plus for two extra at-large seats on the council.
“I can see the need in a city like New York,” Councilwoman Deni Taveras told the Prince George’s Sentinel. “But the issue that I have here is that we’re already very limited in how we can raise money. We can’t take any money from developers. So, if we’re trying to fix a problem, we’re already very limited. Ninety-five percent of the people that we see on a daily basis, we can’t raise money from here.”
If passed, the law wouldn’t impact elections until the 2022 elections, which would give the council lots of time to consider the issue, including the possibility of putting the question to voters.