June 06, 2020
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Don’t like Clean Elections? Try to change the law, don’t hold funding hostage.

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
The State House in Augusta.

After dealing with 42 vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage last week, lawmakers turned their attention to resolving a fight they shouldn’t even be having. Because of a drafting error, funding for the state’s Clean Elections system remains in limbo.

Lawmakers last year approved $3 million in funding for Maine’s Clean Election program as part of the state’s budget. A mistake in drafting the budget, however, has left the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices unable to distribute the funds to candidates and campaigns.

Rather than fixing the drafting error, Republican lawmakers in the Maine House of Representatives have been using the situation to attempt to rewrite Maine’s Clean Elections law, because they don’t like it.

Last Monday, two different proposals were presented to fix the error so the public campaign financing system could function again. Both proposals, one from Democrats and one from Republicans, would have dramatically cut funding for the Clean Election program and would have capped the amount candidates are eligible to receive. Both were rejected by House Republicans.

It doesn’t matter whether lawmakers like or dislike public financing of campaigns. A system to offer public funding to qualified candidates was passed by Maine voters in 1996. It was reaffirmed in 2015. It is the law.

To use an error to deprive candidates of funds they are counting on to finance their campaigns for the Legislature and Blaine House is unconscionable. If Republican lawmakers find the public funding system so egregious, they should work to have it repealed by Maine voters. That would be an honest way to show their displeasure.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he was aware of the drafting error last year but didn’t say anything because Republicans don’t support public funding of political campaigns and they wanted “another whack at it.”

This is a cynical rebuff of the thousands of Maine residents who voted for the funding system, those Mainers who have donated $5 to candidates to help them qualify for Clean Election support and the more than 100 candidates who are using the system to run for office this year.

Clean election funding wasn’t always a partisan issue. At peak GOP participation, in 2010, 74 percent of Republican candidates for the Maine Legislature used the public financing system; 88 percent of Democratic candidates ran using public funding that year.

In 2016, only 47 percent of Republican candidates used clean election funding while 80 percent of Democrats did.

Without a resolution to the current problem, funding for more than 100 Maine candidates remains in limbo. Because the Clean Election program technically has money, these candidates can’t be freed up to collect private donations. Instead, they are stuck with no way to pay for campaign expenses. This is especially harmful for first-time candidates.

At the same time, incumbent state legislators who are seeking re-election in November cannot raise money from lobbyists or political action committees as long as the Legislature remains in session.

Lawmakers have another chance for a simple fix to the Clean Election system when they are scheduled to meet again during the week of July 23.

They should take this second chance to do the right thing and respect the law.

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