Maryland General Assembly Updates and Permanently Funds Gubernatorial Public Financing Program

Advocates say the update will help reduce the role of wealthy and corporate donors and ensure a viable program for the 2022 election and beyond.

Annapolis – The Maryland legislature will wrap up its 2021 session on Monday after passing the Maryland Fair Elections Act, a bipartisan bill to update and fund the state’s small donor public financing program for gubernatorial candidates. The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Chairman Paul Pinsky (SB415), and the House companion bill was sponsored by Del. Jessica Feldmark (HB424). The bill was approved by bipartisan votes in both chambers. 

According to advocates, the updated Fair Elections program:

  • Enacts stricter requirements on fundraising for participating candidates by limiting all donations to $250, only allowing contributions from individuals, and only providing matching funds for Maryland donors.
  • Shifts the program from a grant to matching fund allocations and sets new qualifying benchmarks and maximum allocations for participating candidates.
  • Adds funding for the 2022 gubernatorial election and requires a minimum funding level in future years to ensure the program is viable for multiple candidates.

“For too long Maryland gubernatorial elections have been dominated by large and corporate donors,” explained Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr. “But with the new fair elections program, candidates for Governor can spend time building support in communities instead of chasing big checks from wealthy donors and special interests.”

In 2020, Maryland PIRG Foundation released a report which found that the people and entities that donate to Maryland’s Gubernatorial campaigns are not reflective of Marylanders who are eligible to vote in these elections.

Maryland’s current public financing system for the gubernatorial race was implemented in the 1970s. Under the current system, contributions up to $250 from individuals count towards seed money and are matched, individuals and non-individuals are able to make contributions up to $6,000, which is far greater than most Marylanders can afford. Under the current system, participating candidates can also accept money from businesses or corporations. 

Advocates who backed the bill called on Gov. Hogan to sign the bill, which they deem a monumental step forward to improve on the program and expand the funding to enable multiple candidates to participate. 

“Small donor public financing for governor can expand opportunities to run for office so candidates who don’t have access to wealth or big donors, so more women and people of color can run competitive races for Governor” explained Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Joanne Antoine. “We are thrilled that the Maryland Senate is pushing to help build a more reflective and representative government.”

In 2014, after authorization from the state, Montgomery County became the first community in the state to establish a small donor public financing system for local elections. Since then, Howard County, Washington D.C., Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Anne Arundel County have established similar programs or are considering doing so. In Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County voters approved of the fund through amendments to the City and County charters. Montgomery County ran their first election using the system in 2018, which showed promising results. 

The existing gubernatorial public financing program was successfully utilized by Gov. Larry Hogan in his first run for office and has been used by other Republican and Democratic candidates, but has since been underfunded. 

“By multiplying donations of $150 or less, the Fair Elections program will put small donors at the center of Maryland’s elections for governor, increasing campaign finance fairness as well as opportunities for Marylanders to influence their outcome,” explained Rev. Kobi Little, Maryland NAACP Vice President and Political Action Chairman.

In order to participate in the updated small donor program for Governor, candidates have to file a notice of intent to make use of the fund, establish a new campaign account, and meet a few conditions:

  • They must accept only donations from individuals, of $250 or less.
  • They must refuse donations from large donors, PACs, corporations, other candidates and political parties. 
  • They must meet minimum thresholds for the number of local donors and amount of money raised in order to demonstrate that their pursuit of public office is viable.

If a candidate agrees to and meets these conditions, they become eligible for limited matching funds for small donations made by Maryland residents.