Committee rejects measure limiting legislators’ ability to operate PACs

Posted March 15, 2013, at 4:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee Friday rejected a measure that would bar a candidate who receives Maine Clean Election Act funding for his or her campaign from also operating a political action committee that raises unlimited amounts of money.

In a 12-1 vote, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted down the measure, LD 410, sponsored by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco.

Candidates who receive Clean Election Act funding are prohibited from accepting any campaign contributions. There’s no restriction in law, however, that keeps them from operating political action committees, which are subject to no contribution limits.

“There’s such a blatant loophole in the system. It’s not some cover-up or anything,” said Chenette. “It’s so blatant, you could just research how individuals are using this to funnel money into other campaigns.”

Chenette also added an amendment to his bill Friday that would apply a $350 contribution limit to a political action committee operated by a candidate running a privately financed campaign outside the state’s public election campaign financing system. Candidates running privately financed campaigns are subject to $350 contribution limits while the political action committees they operate aren’t subject to contribution limits.

That amendment garnered the support of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group for Maine’s clean elections system, which opposed the original bill for not going far enough.

About 70 percent of current legislators used the clean elections system to fund their campaigns last year, according to the Maine Ethics Commission.

Lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee said Friday that restricting candidates’ ability to operate political action committees would dissuade additional candidates from using the clean elections system to fund their campaigns.

Even with restrictions on political action committee activity, others said, money from special interests will still find its way into Maine politics.

“If you plug one leak, it’s going to come out from the other side,” said Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle. “Unlimited money could still flow into those organizations” not directly operated by candidates.

It’s common for lawmakers, particularly those interested in legislative leadership positions, to operate political action committees that accept unlimited contributions and distribute the money to other candidates in their party or to campaign committees operated by their party.

All 10 Democrats and Republicans who currently serve in legislative leadership positions — which include Senate president, House speaker and party floor leaders — operated political action committees during last year’s campaign season.

Of those 10, seven accepted Maine Clean Election Act funds to run their own campaigns, according to Maine Ethics Commission records, meaning they couldn’t accept campaign contributions but could raise unlimited sums for the political action committees they operated.

“The whole intent of the clean elections system is to take money out of politics,” said Chenette, who didn’t use Maine Clean Election Act funding for his campaign because he said he didn’t want to be part of a system with such a clear loophole. “Why do we need a security blanket of big corporate interests and special interest money when the whole purpose is to ensure you focus on the voters, not the funding?”

Chenette’s bill, because it attracted the support of one member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, next goes to the House floor for debate. The legislation is similar to a bill introduced two years ago by then-Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. That measure was voted down by the committee, then failed in votes in the House and Senate.

In addition to Chenette’s bill, lawmakers also will discuss Maine’s clean elections system more broadly in the coming months. Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget for the upcoming two-year cycle recommends eliminating all clean elections funding.

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