AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Heritage Policy Center filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Superior Court against the Maine Municipal Association, accusing the organization of improperly spending government funds to influence political campaigns.
The crux of the Maine Heritage Policy Center lawsuit is that MMA violated constitutional prohibitions on “government entities” participating in and contributing to political campaigns, in particular five ballot questions. The center points to a 1989 statute designating MMA as an “in-strumentality” of local government.
“The plaintiffs all believe that MMA is an organization that does much good in its mission to ‘lessen the burdens of government,’” David Crocker, director of the conservative think tank’s Center for Constitutional Government. “There are constitutional and prudential limits, however, to the powers and activities of such organizations.”
MMA officials disagreed with the characterization of the association as a “government entity” and, instead, described the organization as a nonprofit organization that provides lobbying and professional services to its voluntary membership. MMA also accused the center of trying to use the courts to enact political payback for losses at the polls.
“We have been doing this essentially for 75 years,” said MMA spokesman Eric Conrad. “We think they are attempting to silence us and other organizations like us for opposing Heritage Policy Center [issues] because they have been beaten several times in recent years.”
In particular, the Maine Heritage Policy Center objects to nearly $2 million that MMA reportedly paid to support or oppose five ballot questions. Those referenda are: two Taxpayer Bill of Rights issues, a 2004 tax cap proposal known as the Palesky Initiative, last year’s effort to reduce the excise tax and the 2004 initiative known as LD1, that aimed to reduce property tax rates while increasing state support for education.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center was heavily involved in pushing the two TABOR initiatives, both of which failed at the polls, as well as last year’s unsuccessful attempt to ratchet down Maine’s car tax rates.
The think tank is representing four plaintiffs: three signatories of the 2006 TABOR initiative — including tax activist Mary Adams — and MMA member Cyr Plantation in Aroostook County.
The lawsuit is seeking a court decision barring MMA from participating in future political campaigns. It also wants the association to reimburse municipalities for the political expenditures. MMA generates revenues from member fees and insurance premiums.
Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the center, said the organization does not object to MMA lobbying the Legislature on behalf of municipalities or taking positions on issues, including ballot questions. But he characterized donations to political action committees as “illegal behavior” for an instru-mentality of local governments.
“It’s the scope and scale of the involvement and the repeated nature of the involvement,” Bragdon said.
Conrad said MMA sees no distinction between sending representatives to Augusta to testify to lawmakers on a legislative issue and communicating the association’s concerns about a ballot issue to the public, in this case through campaign contributions.
“We believed we had a moral imperative to tell citizens about the impacts of TABOR II and the excise tax [initiative] on core municipal services, like police services and road plowing,” Conrad said.
During a press conference, Bragdon and Crocker pointed to numerous court cases and a 2004 opinion by then-Attorney General Steven Rowe on the use of public funds on ballot initiatives.
In that 2004 opinion, however, Rowe noted that the line between government officials or agencies disseminating information and improper advocacy is “not easy to define in the abstract.”
“Such determinations are fact-dependent and may be complex, particularly in situations such as this where the subject matter of the issue before the voters has a direct and substantial impact upon the duties and responsibilities of those government agencies and officials,” Rowe wrote.