May 29, 2020
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How election-year politics threaten public campaign financing in Maine

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Ann Luther, president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, addresses reporters at the State House, May 6, 2014.

AUGUSTA, Maine — More legislative candidates are signing up to use Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign system after voters strengthened it last year, but it may not be fully funded for the 2016 elections.

The two-pronged, ideological fight comes on the heels of Question 1’s November 2015 passage: It increased money paid to the Maine Clean Election Fund annually from $2 million to $3 million and added new disclosure requirements as well as increased penalties for law violations.

That vote increased participation in a program that has been weakened in recent years by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and funding raids. Of the 241 candidates who filed for 2016 legislative campaigns as of Friday, 182 — or nearly 76 percent — are using it, compared with just 53 percent in 2014.

But legislative Democrats and Republicans are deadlocked over a permanent funding source. The fund’s overseers also want the Legislature to advance a payment to the fund so it can bankroll legislative campaigns through November, but Republicans including Gov. Paul LePage, a program opponent, have lined up against it.

With deadlines looming, the down-and-dirty political wrangling over Maine’s Clean Election system could shake confidence in the voter-approved program.

Democrats and Republicans are sparring over whether Question 1 should be funded by closing tax loopholes — as the law says — or by the state budget.

Question 1 gave the Maine Legislature wide latitude to find $6 million in funding for the law over two years, only directing lawmakers to eliminate “low-performing, unaccountable” corporate tax breaks and leaving it to the Taxation Committee to come up with a bill that does so.

But the committee is divided: In a recent vote, six Democrats voted to fund it by reviving a failed 2015 bill that would have made Maine companies report and pay an estimated $10 million in taxes every two years on money in offshore tax havens, while six Republicans voted to fund it from the state General Fund.

Unless the committee reconsiders that, both versions will be considered by the divided Legislature, where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate.

Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the Taxation Committee, said he’ll “continue to work to make sure it’s funded the way voters said it should be funded.”

But Rep. Stedman Seavey of Kennebunkport, a ranking committee Republican, said his party would rather wait until the Legislature’s Office Of Program Evaluation And Government Accountability finishes reviewing the efficacy of state tax breaks to fund the law that way.

“We don’t have a problem going along with the funding that the voters approved, but we ought to be a little more serious and give it a little more thought,” he said.

Without an advance payment and with more legislators participating, the Maine Clean Election Fund could run out of money mid-campaign.

In a separate issue, the Maine Ethics Commission’s bill is seeking a $2.5 million advance of a payment that’s supposed to come in January to pay for legislative elections.

Republicans opposed that at a Tuesday public hearing, with LePage adviser Aaron Chadbourne saying it’s “not an appropriate way to manage state resources” and it could become a “vicious cycle” that requires more advances later. The governor called the referendum “a scam,” has long dubbed the program “welfare for politicians” and proposed defunding it in 2013.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said it will now ask the Legislature’s Appropriation Committee for “a lot less than what was in the bill” to get through 2016. He said there’s $3.1 million in the fund now, and “we’re confident that the Legislature will come up with some sort of solution” that doesn’t leave a shortfall in the fund.

But if it doesn’t happen, the fund could run out of money before campaign’s end. In that event, candidates would be allowed to seek private contributions — which Clean Elections candidates aren’t allowed to do once they qualify for public money.

That’d be OK with Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, an Appropriations Committee member who said he’s “off the hook” on fully funding the program after the referendum because most of his district opposed it.

“We don’t fund schools fully,” he said, in a reference to Maine’s noncompliance with a referendum that directed the state to pay 55 percent of K-12 education funding, “so why do we need to fund this fully?”


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