AUGUSTA, Maine — Running as a clean elections candidate wouldn’t be an option for hopefuls in next year’s gubernatorial contest under a budget compromise crafted last week by Republican and Democratic legislators.
But while public campaign financing would be off the table in the race for the Blaine House, it would still be an option for legislative candidates, who would be able to qualify for 20 percent more funding than they received during last year’s elections.
Under the budget provision, the clean elections program would receive $2.8 million from the state’s general fund over the next two years. That’s $2.8 million more than the fund would have received under Gov. Paul LePage’s original budget proposal, which would have eliminated funding for the program, but $1.2 million less than the program normally receives every two years.
LePage also proposed eliminating public campaign financing two years ago in his first budget proposal before taking that proposal off the table.
This year’s budget is on its way to the full Legislature after lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee approved their final package late Friday night. The budget could be changed further on the House and Senate floors before it’s sent to LePage, who has said he would veto it because it increases sales and meals-and-lodging taxes.
While $2.8 million for the program is better than LePage’s alternative, it’s less than what’s needed to fully fund the clean elections system, said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group for the state’s public campaign financing system.
“This is a slight improvement for legislative candidates only, but a far cry from what the system was and should be,” he said. “Even with these slight improvements, it doesn’t improve the system enough to make it viable for all candidates.”
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said in February the governor proposed eliminating clean elections funding because he “had to prioritize” in putting together his budget package.
“Giving welfare to politicians came further down the list from protecting Maine’s most vulnerable people,” she told the BDN at the time.
None of the candidates who have formed campaign committees for next year’s gubernatorial race so far have registered as clean elections candidates. Gubernatorial candidates would qualify for about $1 million in funding, which is less than the $2.2 million spent by independent Eliot Cutler’s campaign in 2010 and the $1.4 million spent by LePage’s campaign.
In the 2010 contest, only Democrat Libby Mitchell used Clean Election Act funding. She spent about $1.9 million, including matching funds that are no longer allowed in the program.
In 2012, Maine House candidates qualified for a total of $5,366 for contested primary and general elections. Senate candidates received a maximum of $25,483. Those amounts would rise by 20 percent under the pending budget proposal.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the amount proposed in the budget package would be sufficient for the legislative clean elections fund.
Maine voters supported the creation of the public election financing system during a 1996 referendum. In 2000, the first election for which the program was in place, about 33 percent of candidates used the program. That percentage peaked at 81 percent in 2006 and 2008, but fell to 63 percent in 2012.
Participation in 2012 dropped off after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ruled it unconstitutional for a similar program in Arizona to pay matching funds to candidates whose opponents benefit from private donations or expenditures by political action committees. That decision was later reiterated for Maine’s program in U.S. District Court.
The Legislature that year also voted to cut clean elections payment amounts to candidates by 5 percent and to double the size of campaign contributions that could be accepted by a gubernatorial candidate.
“Given what happens with the Supreme Court ruling and the actions taken by the 125th Legislature, we still think that the voters deserve to have a program that replaces matching funds,” said Bossie, of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
A proposal pending before the Legislature, LD 1309, would increase clean elections funding and offer a way for candidates to qualify for additional financing as a legally permissible alternative to matching funds. The bill would allow publicly financed candidates additional campaign funds if they collect more qualifying, $5 contributions from supporters.
The bill hasn’t yet been taken up in the Senate.