House approves clean elections bill; opponents say it will weaken system

Robert Nutting
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert Nutting
Posted March 14, 2012, at 4:02 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite spirited debate and a few failed amendments offered by Democrats, the Maine House on Wednesday approved a bill that would alter the Maine Clean Election Act.

The 74-66 party-line vote followed a similar vote last week of the Maine Senate. The bill requires additional votes in both chambers because a technical amendment was added. It then would go to the governor for a signature or veto.

LD 1774 removes all references of matching funds from the clean election law, a change needed in order to bring Maine into compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year. That decision ruled that matching funds — which are triggered when a privately funded candidate spends more money than a publicly funded candidate — were unconstitutional.

Without matching funds, a private candidate could spend significantly more than a public one, which some feel creates an inequity. As a result of the court ruling, clean candidates now can receive only upfront public money, if they forgo private donations, that amounts to less than $4,000 for House races and about $18,000 for Senate races.

Most Democrats said those totals are too low to run a contested campaign and they feared that the passage of LD 1774 would encourage more outside money.

“This should be about ideas and ability to convince our neighbors to support us,” said Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston.

If the bill receives final passage, there is a good chance critics will begin gathering signatures for a people’s veto. Andrew Bossie with the group Maine Citizens for Clean Election said last week that Mainers overwhelmingly approved the Maine Clean Election Act in a citizen’s initiative in 1996 and the new bill would significantly weaken that law.

“The House and Senate used a Supreme Court case as an excuse to dismantle our citizen-initiated law when a perfectly suitable, budget-neutral replacement option is on the table,” Bossie said Wednesday.

It’s not clear how LD 1774 could affect House and Senate candidates this election cycle. In 2010, nearly 80 percent of all elected lawmakers ran as clean election candidates. If candidates feel they don’t stand a chance with so little money, they might be dissuaded from running a public campaign. If enough candidates decline to run as clean candidates, some fear it would have the effect of killing the clean elections system.

“Clean elections are the best thing that’s happened to someone like me,” said Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, adding that if she had to rely on private dollars, she likely never would have run.

Wednesday’s battle in the House mirrored a similar fight last week in the Senate, where a number of amendments were considered — including some from Republicans — that would have increased the amount of upfront money to candidates. All were defeated.

When the unamended bill came up for a final vote in the Senate, it passed 18-15.

“We were comfortable all along passing a bill that just dealt with the matching funds,” Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said last week.

Carey offered similar amendments Wednesday in the House, but all went down in party-line votes.

In addition to increasing the upfront money, Democrats were pushing for a “requalifying” option which would allow clean candidates to receive more money if they gather more small donations. That idea was not supported by Republicans.

“Maine voters approved the Clean Elections Act in 1996 in an attempt to limit the influence of private money in elections. This legislation preserves the intent of what voters asked for,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. “It simply complies with the Supreme Court ruling by removing the portion of the law that provides matching funds to candidates whose opponents raise more money than them.”

“I am quite certain that the intention of Maine voters was not to help politicians pay for campaign signs and negative TV and radio ads. That’s especially true during these tight financial times when the state is struggling to pay its bills,” he said.

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