AUGUSTA, Maine — The prospect that Maine’s clean election fund could run dry before the November 2010 elections is causing some concerns among gubernatorial candidates hoping to tap into the program.
The Maine Ethics Commission, which oversees the state’s campaign finance laws, is weighing its options should the combination of budget cuts, legislative races and a full slate of Blaine House hopefuls deplete available funds in the program.
To date, seven gubernatorial candidates have notified the Ethics Commission that they intend to seek public funding in return for refusing contributions from private individuals and interest groups. More than 80 percent of candidates during the 2008 legislative races tapped into clean election funds.
The program now has a cash balance of roughly $3.4 million with an additional $6 million in General Fund money expected to be deposited into the account by September 2010.
Whether that money will cover the demand depends on how many candidates stay in the race as well as whether legislators decide to take back some of that money. Lawmakers have voted to tap into clean election funds five times since 2003.
The possibility of a shortage has the Ethics Commission debating when and how to allow clean election candidates to raise private dollars in order to allow them to compete with privately funded candidates. There are 14 early candidates for governor who have indicated they intend to finance their campaign with private donations.
If there are either three or four clean election candidates in the primary for the governor’s race and only two in the general election, the program should have enough money on hand, according to Ethics Commission staff. The program would fall into the red, however, if more candidates were still in the running come the primaries and the general election.
On Thursday, Ethics Commission staff said they would have to reduce payments to candidates and allow them to raise private matching funds if there is a shortfall.
Jim Mitchell, appearing on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, warned that the commission staff’s worst-case scenario of five primary candidates and three general election candidates may be underestimating the potential problem. He said there are already seven clean election candidates with the possibility for more.
“You may have no money for the general election,” he said.
David Bright, campaign manager for Green Independent Party candidate Lynne Williams, urged the commission to aggressively defend the clean election funding with legislative budget writers. But he also said the commission has an obligation to be flexible with candidates if they know there is going to be a shortfall.
Bright said the commission should offer the money to candidates but also loosen the rules to allow campaigns to begin collecting private donations early on in the race. That private money, which could be held in a separate account, would be used only if there is a shortfall, he said.
But Alison Smith, co-chairwoman of the group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, cautioned against making major changes to the restrictions on private fundraising. Smith said the state needs to find a viable way to adequately fund the program.
“It seems kind of late to be making statutory changes,” Smith said.
The commission will take up the issue again during its January meeting.