AUGUSTA, Maine — New guidelines approved Thursday by the state Ethics Commission provide further clarity on what candidates running their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election program can and cannot buy with taxpayer money.
The commission approved the guidelines with little discussion and no public input, though not for lack of trying. Staffers put the guidelines out for public comment in September, but no one responded.
“I sent it to the usual suspects, and even made a particular effort to send it to the [political] caucuses, and the caucus staffs, and they didn’t make any changes,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, at Thursday’s meeting.
The guidelines are updated every two years to reflect questions by candidates about how they can use Clean Election funds, and issues that commission staff see when they conduct reviews of campaign finance reports.
In issuing recommendations, “we are taking into consideration what historically have been viewed as typical campaign expenses,” said Wayne.
Changes to the guidelines adopted by commissioners on Thursday include clarifications to the rules on property and equipment purchases, as well as price caps on food and lodging.
The food changes reflect new top-line dollar amounts that can be spent on food for volunteers or campaign events: $5 per person for breakfast, $10 for lunch and $20 for dinner. The guideline also was changed to state the campaign “must take into account the public nature of Maine Clean Election Act funding” when buying food.
Wayne said the rule was set after one candidate in 2012 exceeded what commission staff felt was appropriate on food purchases. He said the commission needs to “reassure the public that campaign funds are well-spent.”
According to rules already in place, goods such as cellphones and computers that could be converted to personal use after the campaign must be sold at a fair market value, and the money returned to the Maine Clean Election Fund. A new guideline states that if the goods are sold to the candidate or a member of his or her immediate family, the campaign must receive at least 75 percent of the purchase price.
Other guidelines were added on areas that had not been previously specified. One bars candidates from using taxpayer funds on purchases “not typically necessary for campaigns,” such as office furniture, briefcases or large storage items.
Another states that only inexpensive promotional items should be bought with Clean Elections money — items “such as buttons, baseball caps, T-shirts, or candy to be distributed at parades and fairs. Spending MCEA funds on more expensive items, such as sweatshirts, fleeces or coolers, is not permitted.”
A third rule states that MCEA candidates can only use public funding for office supplies “that they reasonably anticipate” will be used exclusively for campaign purposes, and establishes a mechanism by which the commission may make a candidate repay his or her campaign for any office supplies worth more than $50.
Of the current Legislature, 70 percent of the lawmakers were elected using Clean Election funding. That’s the lowest percentage since 2004. Wayne said the decline results from a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed automatic matching funds for publicly financed candidates who were being outspent by privately funded opponents.
Still, he said he doesn’t predict any further drop in the numbers. Next year, Clean Election candidates in the general election will see a 20 percent increase in funding. House candidates in contested races will receive an initial distribution of $4,724; Senate candidates will receive $21,749.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.