Republican legislators frequently decried what they called the intrusion of “ Washington-style politics” into State House deliberations this session. But when they had a chance to address two of the root causes of public disdain for “Washington-style politics” — undisclosed political benefactors and lax campaign finance reporting rules — they whiffed twice.
On Wednesday, the Senate failed by one vote to override LD 1271, a bill that sought to increase the penalties for campaign finance reporting violations by candidates, political committees and political action committees. Recognizing that the negative impact of reporting transgressions intensifies as Election Day nears, LD 1271 called for penalties to double, then triple for infractions that occur late in the campaign cycle. The legislation also would have hiked penalties applied to political action committees and ballot question committees for late filing.
The bill won unanimous support in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, then breezed through both chambers of the Legislature without opposition. But after Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it — calling the Ethics Commission “a place for political warfare” in his veto letter — Republicans in the Senate voted to sustain the veto rather than give the commission better weapons to defuse that political warfare.
“In the last election we saw good people attacked through the Ethics Commission for political gain,” LePage wrote in his veto letter. That’s like blaming the referee, who’s trying to ensure that a game is being played fairly, for the actions of players who commit fouls.
It also deflects attention from actual violations of Maine’s election laws, as was the case in 2010 when the Republican State Leadership Committee threw $160,000 into five key Senate races, then was late in reporting that expenditure.
One of the best ways Maine can counteract the influence of big money in politics is by knowing who spends it. Late disclosure, which in the era of early absentee voting equates to withholding information from voters, corrupts the electoral process by depriving voters of information — and the power that comes with it.
LePage also vetoed LD 1023, which would have required governors-elect to report private donations for their transitional activities and inaugural events. The Senate, with all but one Republican — Edward Youngblood of Brewer — siding with LePage, sustained the veto.
In his veto letter, LePage noted that he released the names of all donors to his transition team but that enacting a law mandating that future governors-elect do so raises unfair questions about their integrity and “disrespects the decision made at the ballot box.”
That argument disrespects the cognitive abilities and ethical standards of Maine people.
Donating to a governor’s transition team is not about buying appetizers for the inaugural luncheon; it’s about buying influence.
Transition activities put in place an administration’s agenda, affecting how state government functions during and immediately after a change of command. It’s a particularly fertile time to consolidate or grab power that can be wielded to elevate the governor’s political position over those of the Legislature or ideological opponents. LePage’s transition team spawned Maine People Before Politics, a nonprofit political advocacy group that attempts to sway voters’ attitudes on candidates and policy, as it did recently with ads supporting LePage’s budget over a compromise spending plan proposed by legislators.
By sustaining these two vetoes — and killing a bill that would have allowed early voting in Maine — Republican senators added to the party’s recent legacy of seeking to obstruct the grassroots democratic process by placing the interests of well-funded political operatives over those of voters. That’s something they’ll have to explain when they court voters during next year’s campaign.