December 16, 2018
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Maine public campaign funding hangs in limbo as lawmakers keep squabbling

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Speaker of the House Sara Gideon-D Freeport, speaks to reporters in her office, Wednesday, May 5, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers returned the State House to address gubernatorial vetoes on bills including commercial pot sales.

Money to support candidates using Maine’s publicly funded campaign finance system is emerging as the major friction point at the State House as lawmakers slog through the second day of a planned three-day special legislative session.

Enough money for the Maine Clean Election Fund to support this fall’s elections was allocated in last year’s biennial state budget bill, but a technical error in that bill leaves the Maine Ethics Commission unable to spend any money from its own accounts after July 1. In addition to direct disbursements to dozens of participating legislative candidates and one gubernatorial candidate, in limbo is the commission’s ability to use the money for overhead costs such as its rent.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, agreed that negotiations on the issue are nearing an impasse as lawmakers work toward adjourning the special session as early as Thursday.

“If it’s posturing, I don’t know what it’s posturing for, and I’m having a hard time getting any answer other than ‘we do want clean elections to run out of money,’” Gideon said. “This is really going back on negotiations and an agreement we made last year and that’s really tough to swallow.”

Fredette disagreed that past actions should sustain the program into the future.

“I think it’s still an open question,” he said. “Many people in the House Republican caucus are not particularly supportive of clean elections.”

Some House Republicans are using the system, though. According to data provided by Gideon’s office, 29 percent of Republican candidates for the House of Representatives — 40 out of 138 — are using the system. In addition, 50 percent of Republican Senate candidates are using it, as well as 75 percent of Democratic House candidates and 90 percent of Democratic Senate candidates.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, has said blocking the use of the existing funds would be “fundamentally unfair” to anyone who is already campaigning with public funding. Under the system, House candidates receive $5,075 in initial payments for the general election, Senate candidates receive $20,275, and gubernatorial candidates receive $600,000. All candidates are eligible for additional payments through October if they collect certain numbers of $5 qualifying contributions.

Negotiations are continuing. Fredette said Gideon has threatened to pull Democrats’ support of a bipartisan deal on tax conformity. Gideon countered by saying she and her caucus would not agree to adjournment unless all business left on the table is complete, including allowing the ethics commission to spend its money.

That’s roughly the exact opposite situation the Legislature was in on statutory adjournment date in April, when House Republicans refused to extend the session because they opposed the allocation of money for Medicaid expansion.

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