June 06, 2020
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With Question 1, Maine took step toward more transparent elections

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Bangor residents cast their votes on Tuesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Maine voters took a chance in 1996 and ushered in the state’s pioneering Clean Election system. Nearly 20 years later — and by a similar margin of approval — voters Tuesday reaffirmed that 1996 vote and chose to reinvigorate a 15-year-old system in need of updating.

Next year, when candidates sign up to run for the Maine Legislature, they’ll be able to accept public campaign funding with a greater assurance that the amount of money available — in exchange for agreeing to spending limits — will allow them to run competitive campaigns. The public financing will ensure that those candidates can spend campaign season appealing to voters without regard to their ability to make a campaign contribution.

Question 1 won’t excise money from Maine politics. But the ballot initiative was Maine’s chance to introduce more accountability and disclosure into the state’s campaign finance system in an age of increasingly expensive elections dominated by outside spending. It wasn’t the perfect solution, and there’s more to do, but the approval of Question 1 is an important start.

— Next year, outside spending will still likely dominate legislative elections. But party committee and outside groups’ advertising will, under the new voter-approved law, have to disclose those groups’ top three contributors. There are still ways for political action committee donors to evade true identification, but a simple measure that can offer voters more information about who is trying to influence their decisions is a net positive.

— Candidates and political action committees in next year’s election will face steeper, more meaningful fines for campaign finance violations, sending the message that it’s important to adhere to the letter of the law.

— And two years later, after Maine voters elect a new governor, the governor-elect will have to disclose contributions to his or her transition committee. The absence of that requirement was a gaping hole in Maine’s financial disclosure laws — a lost opportunity for voters interested in knowing who is trying to influence policymaking once election season is over.

— We’ve pointed out the imperfections in Question 1’s funding mechanism — a requirement that lawmakers recommend the elimination of $3 million annually in ineffective tax incentives ($6 million per two-year election cycle). Lawmakers could end up ignoring it and finding another way to pay for campaign financing. But now, there will be a requirement in Maine law for legislators to act on information they receive about the effectiveness of the state’s slate of economic development incentive programs. Before Tuesday night, no such requirement existed to pressure policymakers to more effectively spend revenue the state gives up through the tax code.

Opponents waging the campaign against Question 1 this fall called public campaign financing “welfare for politicians” just as opponents labeled it in 1996. Some raised the specter of public campaign financing claiming substantial amounts of public money that would be better spent on other priorities.

“[T]axpayers in 2010 would have had to fork over as much as $30 million if all legislative and gubernatorial candidates participated in the Clean Election system and qualified for all available funding,” Gov. Paul LePage and Republican legislative leaders said last week in a Bangor Daily News OpEd opposing Question 1.

But Maine’s actual experience in 2010 — the last time comparable amounts of public campaign financing were available to legislative and gubernatorial candidates — was much different. The state paid out $6.3 million in total, not $30 million, in a year when 77 percent of legislative candidates and three of 15 gubernatorial candidates participated in the Clean Election system.

The reality is, not all candidates opt to receive public funds. When they do, they don’t spend all available money. And the state’s Clean Election fund can count on revenue sources to supplement taxpayer dollars — including fines collected through campaign finance violations and Clean Election fund contributions. Plus, next year, candidates will have to work even harder to secure additional financing than they did in 2010, so it’s highly doubtful all participating candidates will qualify for the maximum available payout.

Maine voters approved a small additional investment in public campaign financing Tuesday. In exchange, they approved an election system in which political actors are more accountable to them.

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