Just eight years ago, the limit on contributions to gubernatorial candidates was $500 – a limit enacted by voter initiative after the Legislature failed to confront the problem of money in Maine elections. Maine’s low contribution limits and first-in-the-nation Clean Elections Act allowed candidates to wage competitive campaigns centered on good ideas and hard work, while sending special interest influence to haunt other states.
Over the years, despite the protests of Maine people, that limit was raised, first to $750 and then to $1,500. As of developments last week, those once-low contribution limits are now six times higher than what voters approved: $3,000.
The story on money in politics is bad and is getting worse. In January, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections predicted that $26.6 million in private funds would be spent on the governor’s and legislative races in this election, making it the most expensive in Maine’s history. With the clean elections option suspended for gubernatorial candidates and out-of-state money flooding Maine elections, thanks to Supreme Court rulings, we’ve entered a whole new era of money in our elections. We knew this election would shatter past records, and the recently raised contribution limit only makes it worse.
On Aug. 22, a federal judge issued an injunction stopping the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices from enforcing a $1,500-per-election contribution limit that four donors for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler claimed created a handicap for them. Even though the major party candidates were unopposed in the primary election, donors to Democrat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Republican incumbent Gov. Paul LePage were able to give $1,500 per donor for the primary plus $1,500 per donor for the general election. Donors to independent Cutler’s campaign were unable to contribute to Cutler for both the primary and general elections because he did not appear on the primary ballot. Cutler’s donors may have had a point. The judge acknowledged the unusual situation and ruled Cutler’s donors should be allowed to give a total of $3,000 to their candidate this year.
Last Wednesday, the Maine Ethics Commission proposed a new rule allowing any contributor to any gubernatorial candidate to give $3,000 in the general election — double the current contribution limit.
A better solution might have been to enact a simple rule allowing contributors who gave to independent candidates during the primary season to give an additional $1,500 now. That rule would underscore the unique nature of the 2014 election and comply with the court ruling without opening up yet another avenue for large contributions to all gubernatorial candidates. Such a rule would only affect contributors who gave to Cutler during the primary season — on or before June 10. It would not have changed anything for contributors who did not make contributions prior to the primary election, nor would it affect the limits applicable to the party candidates.
But that’s not what campaign operatives wanted as evidenced by their testimony before the ethics commission. They saw a chance to raise more money, and they took it.
The upshot? An eminent judge, a handful of high-dollar donors, money-hungry candidates and our own ethics commission have, intentionally or not, colluded in reversing what thousands of citizens voted for in 1996: low contribution limits.
With this ruling, big-money donors win. Again. Ordinary voters lose. Poll after poll shows Maine citizens want low contribution limits, and this latest development is another step in the wrong direction.
Now, as never before, the courts and the Legislature have let us down. When those entrusted to protect the public interest fail to act on our behalf, the people must make their voices heard.
It’s time for everyday people to stand up and demand campaign finance laws that put them first. A second clean election initiative is more important than ever – one that will improve transparency and accountability while strengthening clean elections. Let’s protect our longstanding tradition of campaigns that focus on voters, not wealthy donors.
To continue our legacy of citizen-led elections, we must win this campaign.
Andrew Bossie is the executive director of the nonpartisan Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. He is a Caribou native who lives in Portland.