AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite Maine’s taxpayer-funded Clean Election Act, which the majority of candidates for the Legislature use to fund their campaigns, more than $12 million from corporate and well-heeled donors has found its way into Maine elections over the past decade, according to a report released Thursday by a group called Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

While the authors of the report said contributions to political action committees run by politicians and major political parties sully Maine politics by allowing big-money influences to infiltrate governance, some of the legislators who have been the most successful in fundraising for their PACs said the reality is that when it comes to elections, spending less than the other side usually equals lost elections.

“I’m not sure anything you can do in law is going to change the system,” said Joshua Tardy, a former Republican legislator and House minority leader from Newport who is now a lobbyist. In the report released Thursday, Tardy is listed as the third most successful legislator in terms of fundraising over the past decade, having taken in more than $1.5 million for the House Republican Fund PAC.

“There are at least two sides to every election,” said Tardy. “In order to be competitive you’re going to have to raise as much as the other side.”

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said Thursday that so much money coming from large donors raises the question of whether candidates serve constituents or their major donors first.

“We don’t want our lawmakers to be beholden to any one contributor or group of large contributors,” said Bossie. “That we allow big campaign cash to come into our political system has an impact on our elections.”

The Maine Clean Election Act, which was supported overwhelmingly by the public in a 1996 referendum vote, limits donations to privately funded candidates at $350 apiece and other than $5 “seed money” contributions at the beginning of a campaign does not allow taxpayer-funded candidates to raise any money for their own campaign. However, both Clean Election and privately funded candidates could benefit from third-party PACs as long as the candidates were not involved in either planning the campaign expenditures or handling the money.

Until the law was changed this year, Clean Election candidates for House, Senate and the governorship were given additional public funds, to a certain amount, to match what was raised by privately funded opponents.

There are no limits in Maine law on how much anyone can contribute to a political action committee and few limits on how the PAC can spend that money — even if it directly benefits a particular candidate and even if it benefits a Clean Election candidate — as long as a candidate doesn’t benefit from his or her own PAC or the money isn’t given directly to a candidate who has decided to accept only public money. Those who run the PACs decide where the money goes, often to the most hotly contested races.

According to the report, which is titled “PACs Unlimited: How Legislator PACs Distort Maine Politics,” the stakes are huge. The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which was run by Sens. Phil Bartlett and Barry Hobbins, and the House Democratic Campaign Committee, run by Reps. Emily Cain and Seth Berry, raised $2.6 million and $2.3 million respectively over the past decade. Republicans rounded out the top five with Tardy’s House Republican Fund, $1.5 million; the Maine Senate Republican Committee, run by Sens. Carol Weston and Richard Rosen, $1.1 million; and the Maine Senate Republican Majority, run by Sens. Jonathan Courtney and Kevin Raye. Most of those legislators also were listed a second time among the 32 legislator PACs that the study focused on, and many of them were elected as Clean Election candidates.

The study also addressed where the money to legislator and caucus PACS comes from. Since 2002, there have been 152 contributions of more than $15,000. The 10 highest contributors in the study period were Donald Sussman, $379,000; Robert Bahre, $54,000; John Wasileski, $35,500; Robert C. Monks, $35,000; Justin L. Alfond, $33,000; Richard Dyke, $30,000; Cyrus Y. Hagge, $26,850; John Orestis, $25,750; and Gary Bahre, $17,000. Piles of money also come from the legal, health care, banking and finance, and pharmaceutical sectors, which all have given $400,000 and up since 2000, according to the study.

The Maine Citizens for Clean Elections study was limited to PACs run by legislators and does not include money given to a range of other PACs, such as those that are founded around a specific ballot question. Bossie, the organization’s executive director, said more studies on PACs and other issues will be released in coming months as part of a series called the Money in Politics Project.

Weston, who is no longer a legislator, said the extra money is essential to virtually anyone’s race for a statewide public office.

“It takes money to win elections. As much as we might like to say it doesn’t, it does,” she said. “You have to find a way to reach voters with your message.”

Rep. Paul Davis Sr., R-Sangerville, said the Clean Election system took a step backwards this year when the Legislature upheld a court decision that providing matching funds — money to equal a Clean Election candidate’s opponent’s fundraising — is unconstitutional. As a result, the system provides about $19,000 for Senate candidates and about $4,000 for House candidates. By contrast, some Senate candidates in recent years have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t think there’s enough money in the Clean Election system to run a campaign,” said Davis, whose Senate Republican Leadership for the 21st Century PAC raised $182,000 over the past decade. “If you have a candidate and you want him to win and it’s a close race, you need to try to influence the results or they aren’t going to win.”

Davis said he has been a Clean Election candidate in the past but because of the elimination of the matching funds he has decided to run a privately funded campaign for his re-election bid.

“I don’t want to limit myself to the amount of money I am allowed to raise if I need to,” he said.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, who ran the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee PAC, which raised $2.6 million in the past 10 years, agreed.

“The reason we participate in leadership PACs is to make sure our candidates are not overwhelmed,” he said.

Dr. Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a government professor at Colby College who specializes in campaign finance at the state and national levels, said many states put limits on the amount PACs can raise, while Maine does not. He said PAC money in Maine politics is nothing new.

“A Clean Election system is not designed to eliminate all private fundraising or private money,” said Corrado. “Its main value is that it does make resources available to candidates who would otherwise not be able to run and it allows candidates to spend their time running for office rather than fundraising.”

Corrado said the elimination of matching funds through the Clean Election system likely will increase the influence of private cash in Maine politics.

“We may see some of these PACs and outside committee gain more influence in forthcoming elections because money they spend independently against clean candidates won’t be matched with public funds,” he said.

Bossie said the core of the issue is whether money from corporations and big donors comes with strings attached when it comes to legislative business. He suggested improvements to the system, including stronger disclosure laws

“It’s important to everyday voters to understand who’s funding political messages,” said Corrado.

That notion was backed up by a Critical Insights poll commissioned by Corrado’s group, the results of which also were released Thursday. It found that 88 percent of Mainers viewed the Clean Election system as important, while 78 percent said reforms are needed in the area of special interest funding in politics.

But Weston, Bartlett, Tardy and Davis said big money tainting politics is rare in Maine.

“I’ve been in this business since 1998 and the only place I’ve ever heard of this is in the news media,” Davis said. “Nobody ever calls me up and says the outside money is bad. I don’t hear it. Bottom line is that I think we just need to elect honest people … so it’s not an issue one way or the other.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.