The Maine Ethics Commission’s ability to disburse money to candidates from the Maine Clean Election Fund is headed for even murkier water than it was already in, according to Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.
Wayne wrote in a memo to the commission about the problem that Gov. Paul LePage has “rebuffed” what Wayne called routine requests to increase the amount of money the commission can allot to payments during the current fiscal quarter, which ends June 30. This type of allotment by quarter is common across state government, according to Wayne, and affects money that was already appropriated to the fund in last year’s two-year state budget bill.
“Our office can pay only around 28 percent of the total owed,” wrote Wayne.
This is a new and separate problem from one that has grown controversial in the Legislature in recent weeks. Due to a drafting error in last year’s budget bill, erroneous language now exists in law that doesn’t allow the commission to spend any of its money after July 1. A bill to fix the language is mired in controversy in the Legislature, where House Republicans are refusing to support the so-called “errors” bill that would fix it.
Wayne said that about 200 legislative candidates are participating in the public campaign financing program, and that initial general election payments were made to them and one candidate for governor earlier this month. Many of the candidates have since qualified for additional funding by collecting hundreds or thousands of $5 qualifying donations, but Wayne said there is only about $390,000 available for the rest of June.
Based on the number of additional qualifying contributions recently submitted, which are still being processed, Wayne said 37 Senate candidates have qualified for an estimated $700,350 in additional funding; 82 House candidates have qualified for $327,675 and independent gubernatorial candidate Terry Hayes is potentially owed $350,000.
Wayne said candidates have already been told that because of LePage’s refusal to sign off on a higher spending limit for the fourth quarter, payments will be reduced.
“Candidates are understandably frustrated,” wrote Wayne, who said LePage’s refusal was “for reasons that remain unclear to us.”
According to data provided by Wayne, LePage’s refusal to sign the orders would hit far more Democratic candidates than Republicans. In the Senate, 27 Democratic candidates are owed funding compared to seven Republicans and two independents. In the House, 64 Democrats are due for payments, compared to 12 Republicans and eight independents.
Wayne said the governor has agreed to meet with him and the leaders of the commission to discuss the issue but has made it clear he opposes issuing the financial orders.
LePage’s office did not immediately respond to questions about Wayne’s memo.
Lawmakers defended the Maine Clean Election Act, which was created by referendum in 1996 and significantly amended in 2015, during a news conference Tuesday at the State House.
Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he probably never would have been elected without it. He also hinted that legal action could be forthcoming if the Legislature cannot resolve the allocation impasse affecting payments after July 1.
“I was upset that people with power and influence, elitists, were able to do things that affected myself and my family and people I cared about,” Jackson said. “People are frankly pissed off that they don’t have the voice they should have in elections and clean elections in Maine is part of why people feel they do have a voice.”
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said the law isn’t perfect but that he supports passage of the errors bill because legislative intent was clear last year when the state budget was passed.
“Last year, when we voted on this budget I gave my word,” he said.
The Ethics Commission has scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the issue and how to fairly distribute the money it has available.
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