A state court judge ruled Thursday that the LePage administration had no authority to withhold funding from candidates who are using the state’s Clean Election system. Superior Court Judge William Stokes ordered the administration to make the money available within three days.
The same logic should apply to a drawn-out, but unnecessary, battle in the Maine Legislature over Clean Election funding. The ruling should prompt lawmakers to quickly a drafting error and restart the flow of funding, which was promised to candidates who met the qualifications for public campaign financing.
Withholding this money from candidates who are running for office in the Nov. 6 election severely hampers their ability to campaign. More than 100 candidates have qualified for public funding this year. They are forbidden from raising money from private donors.
In his ruling, Stokes makes it clear that the governor and Legislature have no role in allocating money to the Clean Elections program. Instead, the program contains specific requirements that candidates must meet to qualify for this funding, which is distributed by the Maine Ethics Commission. Once candidates have met these standards, distribution of specific amounts of money, at specific times, is “mandatory,” Stokes wrote. There is no discretion in the distribution of these funds, Stokes wrote repeatedly in his 22-page ruling.
The case involves Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to release about $1 million in Clean Election funds that were due to be dispersed to candidates by June 30. The money had been appropriated by lawmakers and was allocated for the Clean Election program. As a result of LePage’s refusal, the Ethics Commission voted in June to reduce payments to Clean Election candidates to match the amount in the fund. Qualified candidates received only about 28 percent of the funding they were entitled to under the public campaign funding law.
The situation for current Clean Election candidates is made worse because a group of House Republicans refuse to agree to correct a drafting error that has stalled public campaign financing for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Money to fund Clean Election campaigns for 2018 has been appropriated, but the Ethics Commission can’t distribute it because of the error.
Republican House Leader Ken Fredette said they would not agree to the fix because many Republicans don’t support the public funding system, which is now used more heavily by Democratic candidates for the State House than by their Republican counterparts.
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.
Current Republican disdain for the system is irrelevant. Maine voters have twice supported the system at the ballot box. In addition, tens of thousands of Maine voters have supported Clean Election candidates with $5 qualifying contributions to candidates.
LePage has also entered this disagreement, saying that the Clean Election funding should only be forthcoming if lawmakers agree to rollback the state’s minimum wage increases, which were also passed by voters.
Such demands should be rejected.
As Stokes makes clear in his ruling, providing funding to qualified candidates is not optional under Maine’s Clean Elections law. It shouldn’t take another lawsuit to prompt lawmakers to restart the required flow of funding to qualified candidates.
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