AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Citizens for Clean Elections on Tuesday announced it will gather signatures to petition the state’s voters to implement a new system to give publicly financed political candidates access to more cash.
The group, which is one part campaign finance watchdog and one part Maine Clean Election Act advocate, said the initiative would allow publicly funded candidates to better compete against the growing deluge of spending by independent groups and privately funded candidates.
“You don’t have to have more money than the other guy, you just have to have enough money to get your message heard,” said Ann Luther, president of the group’s board of directors.
The Maine Clean Election Act provides eligible candidates a fixed amount of public money to run their campaigns in exchange for the candidate agreeing not to accept any additional contributions after they qualify. Proponents of the system say it allows candidates without access to deep pockets to compete against more moneyed opponents.
The new initiative would create a mechanism to replace the “matching funds” system struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. That system automatically gave additional campaign money to Clean Election candidates who were outspent by privately funded opponents.
The elimination of automatic matching funds caused a drop in the number of Clean Election candidates, most likely those in highly competitive races. In 2012, there were 242 publicly financed candidates, down from about 300 in 2010. As of Tuesday, 186 Senate and House candidates already have qualified for Clean Election funds, and four more House candidates’ qualifications are still pending approval by the Maine Ethics Commission.
The new system, proposed in the petition unveiled Tuesday, would allow candidates to continue collecting $5 qualifying contributions after the initial period, thus qualifying for additional money. It’s the same change proposed by Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, in a bill that was killed in April after receiving initial support in the House and Senate.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections will begin collecting signatures this month, with hopes to have enough support to get the issue on the ballot in November 2015.
Supporters of the initiative, who gathered for a news conference at the State House on Tuesday, said it was necessary to make Maine’s publicly financed candidates more competitive because the system had been weakened since voters originally approved it in 1996. At the same time, the Supreme Court repeatedly has lifted restrictions on private campaign spending, which the Clean Election group said has put publicly financed candidates at a continued disadvantage.
Spending by outside groups to influence Maine elections has skyrocketed since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted restrictions on independent expenditures.
Since then, spending on Maine elections has grown by millions of dollars. Independent expenditures — political spending not associated with any candidate’s campaign — on gubernatorial elections jumped from about $600,000 in 2006 to more than $4 million in 2010. That’s an increase of 650 percent.
Legislative races saw a massive influx as well, from about $600,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2010 and $3.6 million in 2012. That’s a jump of roughly 547 percent.
Last month, the Supreme Court also struck down limits on aggregate contributions, meaning wealthy donors may give the maximum amount to as many candidates, parties and political action committees as they choose. A Virginia-based group is threatening to sue the state of Maine if it doesn’t quickly change its own campaign finance laws to comply with the high court’s decision.
All that has “rolled the clock back to the era of robber barons, where money is supreme and voters come in second,” said Arn Pearson, a vice president at Common Cause who helped write Maine’s original Clean Election law.
“Augusta has not acted,” Pearson said. “So now it’s time for the people to take matters back into their own hands and make clean elections work for another generation of candidates.”
The initiative would be funded by the elimination of as-yet unidentified tax expenditures, which Maine Citizens for Clean Elections casts as “corporate tax loopholes.” It also would require disclaimers for political advertising bought by outside parties, including the name of the top three funding sources for that group. Lastly, it would require disclosure on funding for gubernatorial transition teams, and increase the penalties for campaign finance violations.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.