Clean Election Checkoff

Posted April 07, 2009, at 9:48 p.m.

Maine’s system of clean election funding is popular with the public and lawmakers, but it is in danger of running short of money. Taxpayers can show their support for the program — and help avert a decrease in funding to candidates — by using the Clean Election Fund checkoff on their state income tax form.

Checking the box — it is the first question after your name and address on the 1040ME forms — diverts $3 to the program. It does not reduce your refund or increase the amount you owe the state. Instead, each checkoff sends $3 from the state’s General Fund to the state’s Clean Election program. Consider it as a way to tell Augusta that you fully support this election funding system, otherwise lawmakers are free to assume that the program is not that popular with the public and can be changed. There are several proposals in the Legislature to both strengthen and weaken the Clean Election program. There are bills to increase allowable contributions and to allow more political action committee involvement. There are also bills to prohibit PAC involvement in campaigns funded with Clean Election money and to increase the amount of money required to qualify as a clean candidate.

Voters in 1996 approved a public financing system, believing it would free candidates from the burden of raising money, especially from lobbyists. The public funds come mostly from state appropriations — $2 million a year, by law. Smaller amounts come from a checkoff on state income tax forms — about $200,000 a year — and the required $5 contributions collected by publicly funded candidates, which totals about $130,000 a year.

In 2002, 62 percent of the state’s candidates took Clean Election money. In 2006, 81 percent of legislative candidates — and 84 percent of those who emerged victorious — did so, highlighting the growing popularity of the program.

Since 2002, the Legislature has transferred more than $8 million from the Clean Election Fund to balance the budget and to use for other programs. About half of this money has been returned, leaving a shortfall of more than $4.4 million. In his proposed biennial budget, Gov. John Baldacci would repay $2 million of the $4.4 million, which will still leave the fund without the cash it needs to fund candidates for the Legislature and Blaine House.

If four candidates for the Blaine House are publicly financed in both the primary and general elections in 2010, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices would need $6.6 million, less than it will have available.

If the fund doesn’t have money to fully fund qualified candidates, its only choice is to authorize candidates to accept some private funds, which contradicts what the public approved a decade ago.

To help avert this, supporters of the program should check off the Clean Election Fund box on their tax returns.

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