May 26, 2020
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Legislature has to address changes to Maine Clean Election Act

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would strip all mentions of matching funds from the Maine Clean Election Act likely will be voted on next week by a legislative committee, but one lawmaker is still working on an alternative.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling concluded that matching funds — allowing candidates to receive extra public money to match what their opponent has raised — are unconstitutional.

If the state does nothing, that court ruling automatically would apply to Maine, but a bill, LD 1774, has been drafted to formally address matching fund references in state law.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, has another bill, LD 1523, that he hopes addresses the loss of matching funds with an alternative and he’s working to convince Republicans to join him.

“If nothing is done to protect Maine’s Clean Elections then a well-connected, well-financed candidate would know just how much money to raise if he wanted to overpower and silence his Clean Elections challenger,” Patrick said in a Democratic weekly radio address that is expected to air Saturday. “Such a system would actually deter candidates from using Clean Elections and would instead promote privately financed, higher priced campaigns.”

The Maine Clean Election Act grew out of a successful citizens’ initiative in 1996.

Under that law, candidates qualify for public financing by collecting a certain number of small contributions. Once a candidate reaches that threshold, he or she receives a set amount for the primary and for the general election.

If an opponent or a third party — specifically a political action committee — spends more than the allotted amount against the Clean Election candidate, that candidate would receive additional matching dollars to keep the financial playing field even.

Last fall, lawmakers considered t wo options put forth by the Maine Ethics Commission that sought to address the loss of matching funds.

Under the first option, the state would give public candidates a greater fixed amount of money upfront — $7,716 for House candidates and $33,617 for Senate candidates. The current initial amounts are about $5,000 for a contested House race and $25,000 for a Senate race.

Under the second option, Clean Election candidates could qualify for extra payments by collecting additional $5 checks from private donors.

In strict party-line votes, members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee rejected both options.

Democrats on the committee supported option two but were open to other ideas as well.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said committee members were happy to give Patrick a little more time to come up with something else. Still, she indicated that she may not change her mind.

“If neither of these bills passes [next week], there will be no matching fund provision and no other provision. Frankly, I’m OK with that,” Plowman said. “Everyone starts on the same footing and if it becomes a tough race, you just work harder.”

The problem of outside money emerged in 2010 when a conservative out-of-state group spent $400,000 on negative ads as part of a successful effort to unseat five Democratic state senators. That group was fined for failing to report the contribution — which was important because timely filing would have triggered matching funds — but that wasn’t until after the election.

During the 2010 election, roughly 80 percent of legislative candidates — Republicans and Democrats alike — were publicly financed and roughly half of those candidates received some matching funds.

That’s a sign, Patrick said, that the issue should not be partisan.

“It’s an issue that keeps special interest and out-of-state money out of our political system and it’s an issue that encourages transparency and honest dialogue during campaigns,” he said.

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