AUGUSTA, Maine — In a strict party line vote on Tuesday, Republican members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee narrowly favored stripping the matching funds provision from the Maine Clean Election Act.
If the full Legislature does the same early next year, the move could have implications for every state House and Senate race in 2012.
This summer, U.S. District Court Judge George Singal ruled that the matching funds provision of Maine’s law was invalid. His decision was based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar public campaign funding provision in Arizona law.
Clean elections candidates, once they collect a certain amount of small donations, receive a fixed amount of money from the state to run their campaigns. In the past, they also could receive matching funds if their opponent or an outside group spent additional money.
Maine lawmakers have been struggling since that court ruling with a way to address the elimination of matching funds and have debated two options put forth by the Maine Ethics Commission.
Under the first option, the state would pay candidates fixed amounts upfront — $7,716 for House candidates and $33,617 for Senate candidates, significantly more than the current allocations.
Under the second, clean candidates could get extra payments by collecting additional $5 checks from private donors. In order to qualify for public funding in the first place, candidates need to collect a minimum number of such donations.
Republicans have rejected both.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate to rewrite laws on such short notice,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden. “I think this will require everyone to look at their pot of money and then make responsible decisions. And if they think they need more money, they can do what always has been done: pound the pavement.”
Democrats on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee have supported option two offered by the Ethics Commission and were critical of what they see as feet-dragging by Republicans.
“The purpose of clean elections is to reduce the influence of special interests, while also opening up doors for average Mainers to run for office,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford. “If we don’t revise the law, the system will be less attractive for candidates who require more funds in competitive races.”
In the last election, more than 80 percent of legislators used Clean Election money.
“The Republican proposal to do nothing will effectively kill the clean elections system,” Patrick said.
Republicans have rejected the Ethics Commission’s recommendation in part for fear that it would increase costs. The commission’s own estimates, however, suggest that would not happen.
Maine’s publicly financed campaign system began in 1996 after a successful citizens’ initiative. Eight out of 10 legislators in the State House currently are Clean Election candidates and the system is used almost equally by Republicans and Democrats.
Plowman said outside influence always has existed and that will continue because candidates don’t always know when outside funds are sent to their specific race. She said Republicans and Democrats would be affected equally by any changes to Maine’s Clean Election Act.
Some, including Alison Smith, president of the board of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, worry that the Republican proposal would cripple clean candidates.
“With several good options on the table, it’s disappointing that a majority on the committee voted to weaken a popular and well-used law,” she said. “Many will view the weakening of Clean Elections through this do-nothing approach as a first step in dismantling a program that works to reduce the influence of private money in Maine elections.”
Following Tuesday’s vote of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, both the Republican and Democratic proposals will be up for debate by the full Legislature when it convenes in January.