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Public Financing Coming to County Races

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The outcome of the national election may have been a shocker to Howard County voters, who voted 2-1 for Hillary Clinton, but the results of the school board race and the charter question for public financing of local campaigns were not as surprising.

A slate of three school board candidates backed by the teachers union and an anti-incumbent coalition won easily, knocking off the lone incumbent who survived the primary, Janet Siddiqui.

Question A, which required the Howard County Council to set up a system of public financing for people running for council and executive, passed with a safe 7,500-vote margin, though the measure actually lost among people who voted on Election Day by 2,000 votes.

The margin of victory for Question A was surprising given the positive wording of the ballot question and how weak the opposition seemed. Proponents outspent the organized opponents (mostly Republicans) at least 10-to-1 if in-kind support from progressive organizations is counted.

Outspent 10 to 1

The proponents raised $306,000, with $236,000 of that coming from Common Cause, the good government advocacy group; Common Cause got $45,000 of that back for consulting fees and campaign workers. Thousands of small donations were given online by more than 4,500 people, most of them from out-of-state.

Public financing advocates spent the money on at least two mass mailings to voters, advertising and payments to groups including the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) Citizen Lobby and Progressive Maryland for grassroots organizing.

In addition to the cash contributions, other groups contributed more than $86,000 in staff time, printing and outreach to their members. This included the Democracy Initiative ($38,500), the League of Conservation Voters ($19,000), Progressive Maryland ($18,000), the Sierra Club ($4,200) and Our Revolution ($3,000),

The opponents didn’t get organized till the fall and raised just $37,000 from a handful of regular Republican donors — Kingdon Gould ($10,150), Chip Lundy ($10,000) and $5,000 each from Apple Ford (George and Chip Doetsch), CB Flooring (Carol and Chuck Bode) and J.P. Bolduc, with the Republican Central Committee donating $1,500.

Given this level of support for Question A, which manifested itself in many ways, including media outreach, I had expected Question A would get 60% or higher. But U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who actively supported the move, disabused me of that notion on Election Day morning, telling me that public financing doesn’t poll well in general, but it might do better in Howard County.

In the end, the charter amendment got only 52% of the vote overall. It got 57% in early voting, with higher turnout from Democrats, and 58% among absentees, but only 49% on election day.

The major objection to public financing is that in the Howard County version, public tax dollars will be used if voluntary contributions from taxpayers aren’t sufficient.

County Council Needs Plan

Now the county council must craft the legislation to implement the program with specifics.

Under the coalition proposal, an independent commission would make funding recommendations to the county executive and county council for annual appropriations to ensure the program is available for qualifying candidates in the 2022 election cycle, giving it five years to ramp up.

Voters would be allowed to make a check-off on their local income taxes to fund the program, with the rest of the money coming out of the county budget. The legislature would have to approve the check-off on the state tax returns used to collect the local share.

The sponsors and the coalition are also proposing that donations to candidates be limited to $150, with the first $50 from a donor matched six-to-one for the executive or four-to-one for the council. Candidates for executive would have to raise $40,000 on their own before being matched, and candidates for council would need to raise $7,500. Matching funds from the county would be capped at $750,000 for executive, and $75,000 for council, limits deliberately set below what is spent in successful campaigns for these offices.

Targeting Foose

Now that the insurgent ticket for school board has won, Howard County School Superintendent Renee Foose clearly has a target on her back. Kirsten Coombs (81,482 votes), Christina Delmont-Small (67,466) and Mavis Ellis (58,341) all made clear their unhappiness with the superintendent and the five board members who renewed her contract this spring. They accused her and them of lack of accountability, secretiveness and high-handed behavior towards the citizenry. The new members now form a majority on the seven-member board unhappy with Foose, along with incumbents Cynthia Vaillaincourt and Bess Altwerger.

Whatever problems they have with Foose, her management style and personality, they must first tackle the dysfunction on the board itself. Getting rid of Foose would not suddenly solve all the issues the candidates complained about during the campaign, nor would continued internal fighting on the board make it easier to find a new superintendent more to their liking.

The Board of Education is supposed to be a “policy governance” board, not a particularly intuitive approach to a new member who wants to get things done. “Policy governance,” a term widely used for community college and nonprofit boards, means that the board sets goals and policies for the organization, and then delegates day-to-day responsibility for achieving those goals to staff.

In Maryland, school boards are actually state agencies, operating under state law to implement the constitutional requirement of a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” They pass budgets, but have no taxing authority to fund them, depending on the county government (70% of its money, $562 million from Howard County) and the state (29%, $235 million) for their operating revenues.

The Howard County Pubic School System Board renewed Foose because it found she was meeting the goals it had set for her.

To get rid of her, the new board majority would have to either buy her out of three-and-a-half years, with a price tag of more than $800,000, or find some “cause” serious enough to warrant her dismissal. Or they could find some way to work with Foose and avoid the kind of disruption that the abrupt departure of a superintendent can cause.

Kittleman’s ‘Disasters’

At the annual awards dinner for the Community Foundation of Howard County, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman came over to my table to tweak me for using (on MarylandReporter.com) what was his best quote from his annual fundraising picnic, which has gotten bigger every year.

A record crowd of more than 500 people showed up on the Kittleman family farm in West Friendship, causing a traffic jam on the one-lane driveway. In his second year as county executive, Kittleman noted that this year Howard County has endured a blizzard, a tornado and a flash flood in Ellicott City. “The campaign against me will say: ‘Don’t elect Allan; disasters will follow,’” he predicted.

Kittleman conceded it was the best quote of the speech. It is both funny and self-deprecating, and as he seeks reelection, also a reminder to voters that he’s handled those situations well.