May 26, 2018
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Cheapening Clean Elections

This week, lawmakers in Augusta will again turn their attention to the perennial issue of campaign funding. As in years past, there may not be enough money to go around. Although the temptation may be to shortchange or even scrap the state’s public financing system, this is not the right solution.

The public remains highly supportive of the program and lawmakers clearly like it — 81 percent of legislative candidates last fall accepted the public money. However, the Clean Election money is an easy target when lawmakers need to balance the budget, leaving the fund without enough money to meet its obligations.

Voters in 1996 approved a public financing system, believing it would free candidates from the burden of raising money from friends, neighbors and lobbyists. The public funds come mostly from state appropriations — $2 million a year, by law. Smaller amounts come from a check-off on state income tax forms — about $200,000 a year — and the required $5 contributions collected by publicly funded candidates, which totals about $130,000 a year.

Since 2002, the Legislature has transferred more than $8 million from the Clean Election Fund to balance the budget and to use for other programs. About half this money has been returned, leaving a shortfall of more than $4.4 million.

In his proposed biennial budget, Gov. John Baldacci would pay back $2 million of the $4.4 million. This is better than taking more from the fund to close the huge budget gap, caused in large part by the national recession, but it may still leave the fund without the cash it needs to fund candidates for the Legislature and Blaine House.

If four candidates for the Blaine House are publicly financed in both the primary and general elections in 2010, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices would need $6.6 million, less than it will have available. There may be fewer candidates in the governor’s race after lawmakers last year approved a 30 percent increase in the number of qualifying contributions needed to qualify for Clean Election funding. This is a positive change that should strengthen the program.

While running the program this close to its financial margin is not sustainable, it does not mean the entire program should be scrapped, as a bill to be considered by the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee would do. LD 205, which would repeal the Clean Election Act, is scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday. Bills that would increase contribution limits for privately financed candidates and would prohibit publicly funded candidates from participating in political action committees will also be heard. A bill to limit public funding to only legislative races is expected to be considered later this session.

Maine’s Clean Election funding has been improved with higher qualifying standards and restrictions on the use of funds to prevent abuses like those seen in the 2006 governor’s race. More improvements may be needed, but that is no reason to give up on the popular program.

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