AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration released roughly $1 million in taxpayer funds to 2018 legislative and gubernatorial candidates in response to a judge’s order on Tuesday, although bureaucratic confusion reigned on the issue for much of the day.
It could end one legal fight over Maine’s Clean Election program, but another could be on the way. The money to be released Tuesday to about 120 state candidates was originally due in June, while another $4.8 million in the fund is locked away because of a legislative drafting error.
In June, the Republican governor drew a lawsuit from advocates by trying to run the clock out on just under $1 million in Clean Election funding by refusing to sign financial orders to cover the $1.4 million for which candidates had qualified by the end of the last fiscal year on June 30. Instead, candidates got about a quarter of that amount, which was all that was left in the fund.
A Maine judge ruled last week that a fiscal order wasn’t required to allocate money to the fund and ordered the LePage administration to make the full amount of money — just under $1 million in all, according to Maine Ethics Commission data — available to candidates by Tuesday.
LePage’s budget department didn’t appeal. But it issued a Monday letter to the ethics commission — which administers the fund — that created confusion by saying because Stokes’ order said the fund falls outside of normal budget processes, it would pull certain fiscal supports for the commission. The commission isn’t trained to issue checks and track payments.
Later Tuesday, LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said in a statement that the funds are now available to the commission, and the budget department is working to train commission staff on how to budget and issue checks and track payments to candidates.
“In short,” Rabinowitz said, the department “is assisting in making sure the funds get transferred to the individual accounts today.”
Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said on Tuesday afternoon that the department sent additional staffers to help process payments by day’s end. He said candidates will see them within days, though the administration’s action “will have a serious impact” on the commission’s day-to-day operations and staff is “still assessing the full implications.”
After the letter was released, Bob Howe, a lobbyist for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which led the lawsuit, said that it appeared LePage was trying to “throw sand in the gears” of the payments. After the statement from the governor’s office, Howe said it looked more “hopeful.”
The Clean Election fund has a bigger problem, with $4.8 million for this fiscal year inaccessible because of a drafting error in a 2017 budget that broke a state shutdown. Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives have blocked a fix; Democrats have held up approval of a bipartisan plan to conform to the federal tax code.
No deal has been struck to end the impasse, and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has said that it could file another lawsuit seeking release of the funds using a similar legal argument to the first lawsuit if the Legislature doesn’t act.
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