EDITORIALS

Cut public campaign financing for gubernatorial candidates

A steady stream of voters wait return their ballots at the Bangor Civic Center in the 2008 election.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
A steady stream of voters wait return their ballots at the Bangor Civic Center in the 2008 election. Buy Photo
Posted June 14, 2013, at 2:32 p.m.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee had to acknowledge many unpleasant realities about state government’s fiscal condition in the budget compromise its members fashioned last week. One of those realities is that it’s no longer feasible to run for governor as a publicly funded candidate.

The budget-writing committee factored that reasonable conclusion into its plan to allocate $2.8 million from the general fund for the Maine Clean Election Act over the next two years. That amount falls short of the $4 million the program has been receiving under the assumption that gubernatorial candidates would be able to tap public funds to finance their campaigns. But it accurately reflects the state’s political and economic circumstances, recognizing that Maine should focus public campaign financing resources on legislative races, where they yield the greatest benefit.

The pending budget proposal would trigger a 20 percent increase in the amount of Maine Clean Election Act funding that would be available to legislative candidates in 2014. That constitutes a well-targeted and more prudent use of limited resources than setting them aside on the basis of the idealistic but impractical notion that public campaign financing could level the gubernatorial election playing field.

A bill, LD 1309, that won initial approval this week in the House and Senate calls for continued availability of Maine Clean Election Act funding for gubernatorial candidates. That’s a noble effort to hold true to what the act’s creators envisioned when they presented the concept to voters in 1996, but it’s no longer workable.

Even before federal courts in 2011 struck down provisions of campaign financing laws that provided matching funds for publicly funded candidates, the cost of running for governor in Maine had grown beyond the scale of what the Maine Clean Elections Act could manage. A loophole allowing political action committees or other outside groups to spend on behalf of publicly funded candidates further undermines the act’s goal of reducing the influence of money on the high-stakes race for Maine’s highest elected office.

The Maine Ethics Commission website shows that five candidates have filed to run for governor in 2014. All five, including Green Independent Party candidate David Allen Slagger, have registered their campaigns as privately funded. A sixth candidate, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, plans to enter the race, further raising the stakes and increasing the likelihood that record amounts of private money will flood into the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

If the candidates acknowledge that it’s impossible to run an effective campaign by relying on public funds, lawmakers should, too. It’s time to eliminate public campaign financing for Maine gubernatorial candidates, a change that the budget provision acknowledges.

Concentrating on what works — publicly financing legislative elections — in and of itself will strengthen the law. Contrary to Gov. Paul LePage’s assertion that the Clean Election Act represents “welfare for politicians,” the system’s success in promoting diversity and competition in legislative races since 2000 reveals it to be a valuable investment in ground-level democracy that diminishes the influence of politics in state government.

During the decade before the 2000 implementation of the Clean Election Act, incumbents in an average of 31 legislative districts (out of 186) ran unopposed for re-election, according to a 2007 report completed for the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. In 2004 and 2006, that number had dropped to an average of 2.5 districts, the report shows. It remains minimal.

The number of women running for the Legislature has risen from 70 in 1990 to almost 100 in 2012 since the implementation of the Clean Election Act. Seventy-one percent of female candidates surveyed for the 2007 report said public funding affected their decision to run.

Public campaign financing makes it possible for Maine to retain a citizen legislature, as evidenced by the fact that the current crop of lawmakers includes doctors, teachers, farmers, business owners, mill employees, retirees and lobstermen. That mix, with its direct connection to the full range of Maine voters, provides an important State House counterweight to the professional political machines that have already started gearing up for the 2014 gubernatorial contest.

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