AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers were urged Tuesday to fix a legally invalid portion of Maine’s public campaign financing law quickly so that candidates in next year’s races can use the system.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard a pair of proposals to replace a provision in the Maine Clean Election Act that tied the amount of public funds a candidate receives to how much privately funded rivals spend.
The “matching funds” provision is similar to one in Arizona’s public financing law that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Arizona’s law is modeled on Maine’s, which provides public campaign funds to qualifying candidates in gubernatorial and legislative races.
Now, with potential candidates in 2012 Maine House and Senate races planning campaigns, lawmakers are being urged to move quickly.
Cushman Anthony of Falmouth, a former three-term legislator who strongly supports Maine’s system, said it stands as a national model. He said it’s “critical” that the Legislature act early in next year’s session.
The Clean Election system is popular with candidates of both major parties, with eight of 10 candidates qualifying for funding, said Ed Youngblood, a former state senator who also served on the state Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which distributes the funds.
Youngblood said the system deserves to be remedied because it puts challengers on a more equal financial footing with entrenched incumbents. Youngblood said he was able to defeat a well-financed Senate incumbent by qualifying for public funding the first year it was available in 2000.
Two proposals were developed by the ethics commission to replace Maine’s flawed matching fund provision.
Under the first, the state would pay fixed amounts upfront for the general election. The maximum allowance would be $7,716 for House candidates and $33,617 for Senate candidates.
The second option would enable “clean” candidates to get extra payments by collecting additional $5 checks from private donors. In order to qualify for public funding in the first place, candidates need to collect a minimum number of small, $5 donations.
Most of the citizen activist groups appearing before the committee Tuesday favored the second option. Some said it would cost the state less money, and House Democrats said it “continues protections for our elections against the influence of special interests and it makes our elections more fair and inclusive.”
John Brautigam, an attorney and former legislator who has been closely involved in the law’s development, said the second option “is more frugal” than giving a maximum disbursement to all qualifying candidates. He also said the second option is legally sound.
“Candidates can get additional funds, but they have to work for it,” said Brautigam.
“They are the masters of their own destiny. ”
Brautigam added that he sees no constitutional issues with the proposal and is confident it would survive a court challenge.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a nonpartisan group that’s supported the law since its inception, also favored the second option, saying it’s similar to the current system, is a more careful use of public money and gives publicly funded candidates more say over their campaigns.
Without taking sides on either option, the ethics commission said an advantage of the first option is its simplicity, but estimates it would not meet the needs for 10-20 percent of the candidates who will be eligible for funding in 2012.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s chief legal counsel, Dan Billings, told the committee it’s not necessary for the Legislature to do anything with the law, just leave it without a revised matching fund provision.