AUGUSTA, Maine — A citizen-initiated petition drive to strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act kicks off Friday with the submission of legislation to the Maine Secretary of State that would boost funding and increase transparency in campaign finance laws.

If the petition is successful, that legislation would become the basis for a referendum in 2014 or 2015.

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which is spearheading the effort, said some elements of the proposal are similar to initiatives that failed this year in the Legislature, including one that was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

The legislation would increase total public funds available to gubernatorial candidates from $1.2 million to $3.2 million, increase funds for House of Representatives candidates from about $5,000 to $16,500, and increase funds for Senate candidates from $21,455 to $65,000. The proposal would end the system’s reliance on the General Fund, which pays for most of state government, by imposing a 15 percent surcharge on all fines and penalties levied by the state ranging from traffic tickets to Department of Environmental Protection fines.

Bossie said the proposal also would require new governors to fully disclose donations and spending during their transition into office — a concept which LePage vetoed late last month — and would bar top officials of political action committees from running for office.

It also would return the cap on private donations to gubernatorial candidates to $750, which was the limit before an increase to $1,500 in recent years by LePage and the Legislature. The current law means that individual donors can contribute up to $3,000 through the primary and general elections.

“We feel that contribution limits are too high for privately financed candidates,” said Bossie. “How many average Mainers can pony up that kind of money to be a political player?”

Bossie said the bolstered system would push what he called “special-interest money” out of Maine elections in an era when it is increasing. Part of that increase was spurred in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which said that the government can’t restrict political contributions by corporations, associations or labor unions.

“We live in a post-Citizens United world where money in politics seems to know no bounds,” said Bossie. “Voters are increasingly fed up by this. … We want to restore the system back to the law that voters passed in 1996. We’re confident voters want to return to a strong clean elections system.”

The Legislature and LePage enacted changes to the law last month as part of the $6.3 billion biennial budget bill. The changes reduced funding to the system for the next two years by $1.2 million and eliminated public financial support for gubernatorial candidates.

One of the chief criticisms of the fund when it came to races for the Blaine House was that it didn’t provide enough money to match privately financed candidates. Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell, who was the only Clean Election candidate for governor in 2010, spent about $1.9 million. That was more than LePage’s $1.4 million but less than independent Eliot Cutler’s $2.2 million.

None of the gubernatorial candidates who have registered preliminarily for the 2014 election with the secretary of state are seeking Clean Election funds.

In legislative races, the language in the compromise budget bill increased funding for House and Senate candidates by about 20 percent from the current limits of $4,923 and $21,455 respectively, according to Bossie.

Although Democrats have outnumbered Republicans using the system, both parties have participated heavily. In 2012, for example, 117 of 143 Democrat candidates for the House used the public funds, compared with 61 of 148 House Republican candidates. On the Senate side, 29 of 33 Democrats and 23 of 34 Republicans used the system, according to data from the ethics commission.

Maine voters supported creation of the public election financing system during a 1996 statewide referendum to create the Maine Clean Election Act. In 2000, the first election for which the program was in place, about 33 percent of candidates used the program. That percentage peaked at 81 percent in 2006 and 2008, but fell to 63 percent in 2012.

Participation in 2012 dropped off after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ruled it unconstitutional for a similar program in Arizona to pay matching funds to candidates whose opponents benefit from private donations or expenditures by political action committees. That decision later was reiterated for Maine’s program in U.S. District Court.

Bossie said his group hopes to collect enough signatures to put a referendum question on the statewide ballot by November 2015 at the latest. Citizen-initiated legislation requires signatures from 10 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election, which based on 2010 figures is approximately 58,000 signatures, though Bossie said his group is aiming for 70,000 signatures.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.