AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission has lifted the $25,000 aggregate cap for individuals donating to political campaigns, based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The decision was lauded by Mainers who believe political contributions are a form of free speech and part of the democratic process. It angered those who argue that private money has no place in politics.

Under the old cap, individuals were limited to $25,000 in total donations to candidates running for office in any calendar year. The Maine Ethics Commission decided last week to eliminate that cap for the time being, said Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, on Wednesday.

Wayne added that no individual in Maine has ever reached the $25,000 cap.

The change means individuals can donate as much as they want to a range of candidates, though limits on how much each campaign can receive from an individual remain in place. Those limits vary depending on the office sought, but in the case of gubernatorial campaigns, the limit is $1,500 for a primary election and an additional $1,500 for a general election. The maximum donation allowed to Maine House and Senate candidates is $750 for party candidates and $375 for independents.

Because of those limits and the fact that the majority of candidates in Maine participate in the state’s public campaign financing system, which bars them from collecting top-level private donations other than $5 “seed money” contributions, there are some who believe it’s virtually impossible for any single donor to reach the $25,000 threshold even if they donate the maximum to every candidate on both sides of the ticket.

“I don’t see how this is going to have a marked influence on Maine’s political climate,” said Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden. “I don’t think you could physically find enough candidates, even if you gave up and down to every candidate running in an election.”

According to a posting on the Ethics Commission’s website, the commission made the decision in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The decision invalidated aggregate limits in federal law that imposed maximum amounts that a donor could give to federal candidates or noncandidate committees in a two-year election cycle.

“The commission has determined that it will not enforce the $25,000 aggregate limit … during 2014 unless and until it receives further guidance from the Maine Legislature or a court of competent jurisdiction,” according to the Ethics Commission’s statement.

Andrew Bossie, director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, is one of the state’s leading voices against the influence of private funding on Maine’s election system.

“While it’s not surprising that the state has had to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, what is surprising is the ruling itself and the increasing amount of money that has been allowed in the courts and Congress,” he said. “It really flies in the face of what Maine and national people want, which is to limit the role that money plays in elections.”

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is a member of the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Maine Ethics Commission and the state’s Clean Elections fund, which helps candidates who choose to participate fund their campaigns with taxpayer dollars.

“Of course I’m opposed to lifting the ban,” she said. “It’s another reason why money in politics is so devastating our government, our ability to govern, our ability to campaign and the ability for candidates to get their message out.”

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said all the limits on donations to candidates should be lifted.

“I think that anybody who wants to make a donation to a traditionally funded candidate ought to have the opportunity to support them,” said Thibodeau. “Traditionally financed candidates have been elected and served throughout the history of our country. … Most of our candidates are funded through donations from aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors and friends. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate source of money for candidates to run campaigns on.”

The commission will continue to enforce collection limits from individuals to campaigns as well as “intermediary” donations, which are when a donor gives money to a third party who in turn donates it to a campaign. Those donations, under the law, are considered to have come from the original donor.

There are no limits on how much an individual can donate to a political action committee or a political party.

Avatar

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.