Yes on Howard’s Ques­tion A

Our view: Lim­it­ing de­vel­op­ers’ in­flu­ence in lo­cal elec­tions is good gov­ern­ment

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES - The

Here’s a ques­tion that all Mary­land vot­ers ought to be pon­der­ing: How con­fi­dent are you that your lo­cally elected lead­ers put the in­ter­ests of their con­stituents ahead of their ma­jor cam­paign donors? As of­ten as the is­sue of the na­tion’s in­ef­fec­tive cam­paign fi­nance laws has been raised on the na­tional stage, the prob­lem is felt just as acutely within city and county gov­ern­ment.

On the lo­cal level, it might even be worse. For all the com­pet­ing (and some­times op­pos­ing) spe­cial in­ter­ests rep­re­sented in Wash­ing­ton, dona­tions to county ex­ec­u­tives, coun­cils and com­mis­sions are dom­i­nated by one group above all — real es­tate de­vel­op­ers who rely on lo­cal gov­ern­ment (and only lo­cal gov­ern­ment) to make land use de­ci­sions that en­able them to make money. Tens and even hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in prof­its may be at stake when a county ap­proves or dis­ap­proves the zon­ing re­quired to build the lat­est high-rise, shop­ping cen­ter or sub­di­vi­sion, or when it es­tab­lishes im­pact fees or other devel­op­ment-re­lated charges.

De­vel­op­ers aren’t just a cam­paign donor, they are cam­paign donors. In Howard County in the 2014 elec­tion, for in­stance, the top con­trib­u­tors to can­di­dates run­ning for coun­cil and county ex­ec­u­tive were all de­vel­op­ers (or lim­ited li­a­bil­ity cor­po­ra­tions associated with them). Mean­while, the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of all th­ese cam­paign dona­tions must now de­cide how Columbia is to be re­de­vel­oped, a $2 bil­lion-plus en­ter­prise for which the county is ex­pected to ul­ti­mately pro­vide a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing pack­age or TIF.

For­tu­nately for Howard res­i­dents, there is a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion at hand. Tucked away on the Nov. 8 bal­lot is Ques­tion A. En­dorsed by a 4-1 coun­cil ma­jor­ity, it would amend the county char­ter so that fu­ture can­di­dates for county ex­ec­u­tive and coun­cil would have the op­tion of fi­nanc­ing their cam­paigns pub­licly through a “Cit­i­zens’ Elec­tion Fund Sys­tem.” No longer would county lead­ers be be­holden to de­vel­op­ers or other big con­trib­u­tors — or even suf­fer the ap­pear­ance of be­ing be­holden.

The specifics of how such a cam­paign fi­nance sys­tem would work haven’t yet been es­tab­lished. Un­der a quirk of the char­ter, vot­ers need to es­tab­lish the fund first. The pa­ram­e­ters are ex­pected to be sup­plied later with the in­put of a cit­i­zens ad­vi­sory board. But it’s likely to op­er­ate sim­i­larly to the sys­tem adopted in neigh­bor­ing Mont­gomery County two years ago — can­di­dates have small pri­vate dona­tions of no more than $150 matched by public dol­lars capped at a max­i­mum amount. In re­turn, they must agree not to ac­cept large dona­tions.

The Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly au­tho­rized such public fi­nanc­ing of cam­paigns three years ago, but lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been slow to hop on board. There are two com­mon crit­i­cisms — that tax dol­lars would be used and that public fi­nanc­ing doesn’t en­tirely elim­i­nate the im­pact of big-monied in­ter­ests since it places no lim­its on Su­per PACs. Nei­ther is a par­tic­u­larly com­pelling crit­i­cism, es­pe­cially weighed against the ben­e­fits of pro­tect­ing vot­ers against the in­flu­ence of deep­pock­eted spe­cial in­ter­ests. Even so, us­ing a vol­un­tary check-off to fi­nance the county fund should ad­dress tax­payer con­cerns.

The stakes are grow­ing. The cost of the fund is pro­jected to be in the neigh­bor­hood of $3 mil­lion, but it won’t be in place un­til the 2022 elec­tion. Mont­gomery County’s first elec­tion with public fi­nanc­ing will be in two years. Other ju­ris­dic­tions ought to wake up and take no­tice. The re­cent strug­gles over the mas­sive Port Cov­ing­ton re­de­vel­op­ment and TIF in Bal­ti­more might ac­tu­ally have been eas­ier if vot­ers had the assurance of know­ing that they held as much sway with elected lead­ers of city gov­ern­ment as de­vel­op­ers do. The level of dis­trust — fu­eled by the his­tor­i­cally cozy po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships be­tween builders and City Hall — might have been the big­gest ob­sta­cle facing the deal.

Enough is enough. Even the $13 mil­lion Mont­gomery County is spend­ing out of gen­eral fund dol­lars for its public fi­nanc­ing pro­gram is triv­ial in a county with an an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get of $5.2 bil­lion. The of­fice sup­ply bud­get for print­ers, pens and pa­per clips is surely big­ger. It’s a small price to pay for good gov­ern­ment and the peace of mind that comes from know­ing the man or woman you elected to make sure roads are main­tained, schools are funded and mas­ter plans aren’t treated as a joke isn’t bought and paid for by de­vel­op­ers.

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