The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee turned its back on another opportunity to close a loophole in Maine’s public campaign financing system when the panel voted 12-1 Friday against a measure that would prevent candidates who accept Maine Clean Election Act funding for their own campaigns from operating political action committees.
Unless a House floor vote reverses the committee’s recommendation against LD 410, the bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, will join failed attempts in the past three legislatures to address the hypocrisy of a system that allows candidates who fund their own campaigns with public money to simultaneously solicit private donations for leadership PACs.
Lawmakers and opponents of Chenette’s proposal argued that LD 410 would not stem the flow of special-interest money into Maine elections. That’s true — because it would be difficult to enforce the prohibition of a third party from operating a PAC for a candidate. But it’s not the point. A broader discussion, one that explores all aspects of the impact of leadership PACs, is needed.
Leadership PACs, which all 10 Democrats and Republicans who currently serve in legislative leadership positions operated, contribute to a dynamic that equates political leadership with fundraising ability. Added to Supreme Court rulings that protect unlimited campaign contributions as free speech, their proliferation helps fuel an unhealthy public impression that Maine state government is increasingly open to the highest bidder, which directly contradicts the spirit of the Maine Clean Election Act that voters passed in 1996.
A second concern is that leadership PACs, which funnel money to political parties and campaign organizations to help other candidates in hotly contested races, extend the special-interest funding pipeline directly into the legislative process. Candidates who participate in Maine’s public campaign financing system can’t credibly claim that they do so to reduce the influence of “outside” money on state politics when their PACs provide “inside” money to help elect party members who could then feel pressure to repay that largesse by voting their benefactors into leadership positions.
Leadership PACs provide a mechanism by which groups hoping to influence state policy can circumvent the protections established in the Maine Clean Election Act. That influence is not insignificant.
A Maine Citizens for Clean Elections study released last year reported that between 2002 and 2012, more than $12 million flowed into legislative campaigns through PACs controlled by candidates and legislators. Many of the biggest donors contributed to both Democratic and Republican leadership PACs, indicating that their motives were more to gain a foothold among those who set the legislative agenda than to show support for a particular political ideology.
“Until the problem of unlimited money flowing through legislator-controlled PACs is addressed, Maine people will be rightly concerned that legislative leaders might be beholden to large donors,” the MCCE study states.
Chenette’s bill as originally written is flawed, but it does provide a starting point for the Legislature to examine honestly how campaign contributions from lawmakers with aspirations to leadership affect the way legislators interact with each other — and, by extension, with constituents.
While barring candidates who accept public financing from being decision makers for PACs that court private donors would lessen the appearance of hypocrisy, the greater concern should be how to maintain the Maine Clean Election Act in a way that makes candidates more answerable to voters than to prospective legislative leaders or campaign donors.