AUGUSTA, Maine — A Republican-backed proposal introduced this week would allow Mainers to write bigger checks to their favorite candidates for governor.
But the late-session proposal, which would double the maximum contribution amount, is drawing fire from Democrats and some observers of Maine’s campaign finance laws who accuse proponents of seeking major changes to contribution limits without putting the issue to a public hearing.
As originally introduced, LD 856 would have increased the cap on campaign donations solely for candidates in county campaigns, such as district attorneys and county commissioners. Although split on the issue, a legislative committee narrowly endorsed the measure and sent it to the House and Senate floors for consideration.
Once the bill reached the Senate, however, Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, succeeded in amending the measure — by a largely party-line, 22-13 vote — to double the maximum contribution limit for gubernatorial candidates.
In Maine, the primary and general elections are treated as separate campaigns. So donors are allowed to contribute $750 in each of the two campaigns for a total of $1,500. Plowman’s bill would permit $1,500 contributions in both the primary and general election for a total of $3,000.
Federal statutes allow donors to contribute up to $2,500 during both the primary and general elections in congressional races. According to Plowman, that means candidates for Maine’s two U.S. House of Representative seats can collect more from individual donors than a gubernatorial candidate, even though they do not campaign statewide.
“This is an attempt to recognize the immensity and the enormity of a statewide race and to bring it a little further along,” Plowman said.
But critics of the proposal questioned why the change is emerging so late in the legislative session and outside of the committee process.
“There was never a public hearing to raise the gubernatorial limits,” said Alison Smith, a board member of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group heavily involved in the debate over campaign finance in Maine.
Smith pointed out that voters set the cap at $500 back in 2006 when they approved the referendum creating Maine’s public campaign financing system. Lawmakers voted to raise the cap to $750 two years ago heading into the 2010 race for the Blaine House.
Those limits, combined with the public campaign financing system, have worked well and enjoy strong public support, Smith said.
“There was no indication [the limit] was too low in 2010,” Smith said. “We look for contribution limits that are low enough to protect Maine people from the ills of undue influence but that are high enough to allow candidates to amass the resources they need.”
Smith said she believes the amendment must be put in context of the push by some GOP lawmakers — supported by Gov. Paul LePage — to eliminate Clean Elections funding for gubernatorial candidates.
Earlier this spring, LePage proposed ending public campaign financing for gubernatorial campaigns as well as raising the cap on private donations to candidates to $2,500 for each election, mirroring federal law. But the administration subsequently withdrew the request.
Rep. Mike Carey, a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that has oversight over campaign finance issues, said he believes the late-session amendment is another attempt to target Clean Elections funding in gubernatorial campaigns. If private campaigns are allowed to raise substantially more money, publicly financed candidates will be put at a greater disadvantage.
Carey, D-Lewiston, said he believes the issue should have been introduced as a separate bill.
“If that is a debate they feel like they can carry with the public, why didn’t it happen early in the session?” Carey said.
Plowman said she had wanted to introduce her amendment during committee discussion but was unable to attend much of the meeting where the bill was discussed because of obligations in other committees. While amending the bill on the Senate floor will not permit a public hearing, it does not mean the issue won’t get a full airing, she said.
“It was well debated on the floor of the Senate and I’m sure it will be well debated on the floor of the House,” Plowman said.
House lawmakers on Thursday postponed action on the bill until a later date.
Capitol News Service writer Mal Leary contributed to this report.