AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s about three weeks from Election Day, but you may just now be hearing about the November ballot question to reform Maine’s program for taxpayer-funded political campaigns.
It allows candidates to run for state office by collecting small-dollar campaign donations to the Maine Clean Election Fund — known as “qualifying contributions” — that make them eligible to receive public money to run campaigns. Once they get it, they can’t raise private money.
The law has been weakened in recent years, but Maine’s system is still one of the most progressive in the nation. Only 13 states provide public campaign financing; of those, just five open it to legislative hopefuls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Maine could take it further this Election Day.
Question 1, if approved, would increase public spending on elections by eliminating yet-to-be determined corporate tax breaks and regulate campaigns more tightly.
It would raise allocations to the Clean Election system from $4 million to $6 million in each two-year budget period. How to fund that increase would be left to the Maine Legislature.
The proposal also directs legislators to pass a bill that would eliminate “low-performing, unaccountable” corporate tax breaks “with little or no demonstrated economic development benefit” as defined by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the legislative watchdog office that has put forward a proposal to evaluate business tax breaks.
It also would increase penalties for campaign law violations and add new disclosure provisions. Notably, outside groups spending money to advertise for or against candidates would need to disclose their top three donors in any advertisement they place.
This would expand the program and open it back up to gubernatorial candidates.
When the Clean Election law first came into being, it allowed legislative candidates receive “matching funds” that were released when a privately funded opponent would outspend them and offered significant financing for gubernatorial candidates.
Neither is true now. The U.S. Supreme Court deemed matching funds unconstitutional in 2011, and funds for the 2014 gubernatorial race were cut in a budget deal. Funding for gubernatorial candidates is slated to be partially restored by 2018 but not to levels seen in the past.
With these changes, participation in the clean elections program has plummeted: In 2008, 81 percent of Maine legislative candidates were publicly funded but only 53 percent were in 2014.
In addition to this, the U.S. Supreme Court also has opened the floodgates on campaign spending from outside groups in political races across the nation with its landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010.
As a result, outside spending on legislative races in Maine rose from $600,000 in 2008 to $3.6 million in 2012, according to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group.
Question 1, if it passes, would replace matching funds by allowing publicly funded candidates to unlock additional money by continuing to gather small seed contributions after they initially qualify for the program. To qualify, House candidates must collect 60 seed contributions, Senate candidates must collect 175 and gubernatorial candidates 3,200.
Here’s how a candidate would unlock added funds: A Senate candidate gets an initial $20,000 for a general election after qualifying for the program. If they collected an additional 45 contributions, they would get $5,000 more. They could only do that eight times, however.
Counting public and seed money, the proposal would limit gubernatorial candidates to a $3.2 million campaign, lifting Senate candidates from about $25,100 to a $65,000 cap and House candidates to $16,500 from about $5,700.
Question 1 proponents have campaigned for months and raised more than $1 million, but opposition is coalescing.
Mainers for Accountable Elections, the main group supporting Question 1, started campaigning in July and raised $1.3 million through September, with three-quarters of that coming from groups and individuals outside of Maine. The Proteus Action League, a liberal group with ties to billionaire George Soros, donated $350,000.
Conservative opponents loosely organized in September under a political action committee called Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians — a term Republican Gov. Paul LePage has used to describe the Clean Election system, which he has tried to defund.
Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, a group founder, said it’ll raise just “thousands” to fight Question 1. He said supporters are running a hypocritical big-money campaign that will only give politicians more taxpayer money to send “more junk mail and make more annoying robocalls.”
“I have great faith in the Maine people to see through this and take it upon themselves to share the truth with their neighbors and turn out and vote,” he said.
Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Question 1 supporters, called it an opportunity “to elevate the voice of everyday people in our election process.” She said reform is “a consensus issue” and that someone, whether it’s large donors or Maine people, will control elections.
“Question 1 is a way to ensure it’s the people of Maine,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified the small-dollar contributions that candidates receive to qualify for public campaign financing as “seed money.” The correct term is “qualifying contributions.”