Last summer, when the Legislature finally settled on a state budget for the next two years, Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed to provide the funding needed for the Maine Clean Election Act — the twice voter-approved program that ensures candidates from all walks of life can run for office without being dependent on big donors.
But in all that last-minute wrangling, a mistake was made in drafting the budget language. A mistake so small it wasn’t discovered until a few weeks ago. Small mistakes can have big consequences, and that error could wreak havoc on Clean Election funding.
Because of the way that budget bill was worded, the error apparently will prevent the Maine Ethics Commission from disbursing money to candidates from the Maine Clean Election Fund after the end of this fiscal year on June 30. At the same time, the law prevents Clean Election candidates from raising private money to make up for the shortfall. They would be able to do that if the fund ran dry, but it is not dry. It’s just that, due to this budget error, the Ethics Commission can’t distribute money to candidates who expect it starting July 1.
This is not a problem that can be ignored or taken up in the next legislative session. If this error is not fixed now, it will affect Clean Election candidates in this election cycle, limiting how effectively Democrats, Republicans, Greens and unenrolled candidates can reach out to voters at a critical time.
I am a proud Clean Election candidate. I used Clean Election funding in the past two election cycles. As a first-time candidate in 2014, I wanted to spend my time meeting people, not organizing fundraisers and bumming money from people who live on a fixed income. Two years later, I ran as Clean Election candidate again for much the same reason, but also because I wanted to keep lobbyists in Augusta at arm’s length, something I believe is essential if you are going to serve in the Legislature.
At the same time, I have reservations about the Clean Election system. When I first ran for the House, I got $5,000. Last time around, I could get up to $15,000 for a House seat or $60,000 for a Senate seat. That is a huge amount of money, and I believe it should be lowered. A more reasonable alternative would be $10,000 max for the House and $30,000 for the Senate. It’s something that critics are right to point out, and should be addressed next year, as the Clean Election system was never about bringing big money into politics. We ought to do all we can to keep it out.
No matter whether you like Clean Election funding or consider it too generous (or as some like to call it, “welfare for politicians”), fixing a typo shouldn’t be a debate about the merits of the program or a chance to get an advantage over political opponents. Candidates and voters from all parties have participated in the Clean Election program since it began. We have three gubernatorial candidates and at least 220 legislative candidates who already qualify. They are Republicans, Democrats, Greens and independents.
And then there are candidates who enter the race after the primaries when others drop out and would normally be trying to qualify for funding over the summer. This problem is like changing the rules in the middle of the game for everyone, but these replacement candidates will be shut out if nothing is done.
This mistake should be simple to fix. Everyone agrees it was just a drafting error, the kind of thing that can happen to good people when there are too many moving parts late at night under a lot of political pressure. This should not be a partisan issue.
A fix was included in the so-called errors bill, which normally sails through the Legislature unopposed. Not this time. It failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the House to ensure passage as emergency legislation. This is among the “undead” bills waiting for legislative action when and if the Legislature comes back for a special session.
I believe it is irresponsible for the Legislature to have adjourned without finishing the business the people sent us to Augusta to accomplish. We should all agree to a special session to complete unfinished business — including fixing this error and ensuring the integrity of this election cycle.
The present debacle regarding Clean Election funding is not a question of whether you support the policy. It is a matter of respecting the will of voters, honoring your legislative colleagues, and standing behind your word and the deals you made in the past.
Will Tuell, R-East Machias, represents Maine House District 139.
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