Circumventing Clean?

Posted Feb. 09, 2010, at 6:10 p.m.

Are clean election candidates still clean if they raise thousands of dollars on behalf of their party and caucus? What if they take money from these political action committees? These are among the many questions raised by a helpful analysis by the League of Women Voters of Maine. They are questions that deserve serious consideration.

In the 2006 general election, more than $4.5 million was given to individual candidate PACs in Maine. In the same election, $2 million went to caucus PACs, which aim to get members of their party elected in hopes of gaining a majority in the Legislature. Nearly half the money came from businesses and corporations. Forty-three percent of the money raised by caucus PACs in 2006 went to other party PACs, showing the easy flow of money despite Maine’s clean election laws.

About $870,000 was raised by leadership PACs, which are set up by those seeking the Legislature’s top jobs — Senate president, speaker of the House, majority and minority leader — and also get the bulk of their money from business interests. Some of this money is also funneled back to candi-date campaigns.

“Some believe that if a Clean Elections candidate accepts public money for his or her own campaign in the interest of remaining free from obligation to special interests, that public money is wasted if he or she incurs obligations to special interests through fundraising for his or her leadership PAC,” the league’s Jan. 27 report said. “The same concern might be raised for legislators who raise money for their caucus PAC or their party committee.”

Candidates who participate in the Maine Clean Election Fund get public money to cover their campaign expenses in exchange for not accepting private donations of more than $100. But, they can solicit large donations on behalf of their caucus or leadership PACs, money that is often funneled back through party PACs. This likely isn’t what voters intended when they established the Clean Election Fund by referendum in 1996.

Under the current system, “the true spirit and intent of public financing in Maine may be compromised,” the league wrote in its fourth report examining PACs in Maine.

In addition to diluting Maine’s Clean Election program, the complex PAC web makes it extremely difficult to track political donations and spending. This, too, is a disservice to the public.

The reports should spur lawmakers to look for ways to make the system more transparent while ensuring that the intent of the state’s clean election system is not undermined by a maze of political action committees.

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