AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, to examine the impact of “dark money” on state and federal elections drew praise Tuesday from clean elections advocates in Maine.

But just a day before King was set to chair a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Rules Committee on how undisclosed funding for candidates and campaigns affects American politics, the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics urged Maine’s Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage to repeal state campaign finance laws it said are unconstitutional.

Center for Competitive Politics President David Keating said Maine law limiting the amount individuals can donate to a candidate or campaign are in direct conflict with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue, McCutcheon vs. FEC.

In a letter to lawmakers, LePage and Attorney General Janet Mills, Keating urged Maine officials “to take quick action to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision … to ensure Maine does not continue to violate its citizens’ First Amendment rights.”

Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said the state would review the letter and provide advice to the Maine Commission on Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees the state’s campaign finance laws. Feeley did not say what that advice would be.

The McCutcheon ruling is at the heart of King’s hearing as it abolished caps on an individual’s aggregate donations to all federal candidates, parties and some political committees.

“No matter who you are, or whether you live in a ‘red state’ or a ‘blue state,’ you deserve to know who’s funding the ads on your TV during an election year,” King said. “But tracing the origin of campaign money … has become nearly impossible.”

King said the 10 a.m. hearing — which will feature witnesses that a top advocate for clean elections in Maine called “the rock stars of campaign finance reform,” including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens — won’t change campaign law overnight. But he said it is an important first step.

“It’s far past time we shine a bright light on the dark money dominating campaigns,” King said.

Earlier in April, King introduced a bill, the Real Time Transparency Act of 2014, which would require that all campaign contributions of $1,000 or more be filed with the Federal Elections Commission within 48 hours.

BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said King’s advocacy for greater transparency comes at a critical time for Maine as the 2014 election season begins to gain speed.

McCollister’s organization has been working to strengthen Maine’s Clean Elections law, which allows for publicly financed political campaigns. McCollister detailed how difficult it was to keep track of donations that are filtered from large “not-for-profit” organizations to a variety of political action committees that pass the money on to party political action committees or leadership political action committees that then donate the money to a candidate’s campaign. The average citizen, he said, has no way of knowing who paid for the television ad or campaign mailers for or against a candidate or campaign.

While disclosure of which political action committee ultimately paid for the ad is required, there’s no telling who funded that political action committee, McCollister said.

Among the changes Maine Citizens for Clean Elections seeks is that the top three donors to a political action committee be disclosed in any political advertising the political action committee purchases.

The group also wants stiffer penalties and fines for those who intentionally violate Maine’s campaign finance laws. McCollister said fines are so light for nondisclosure that the fines are viewed “simply as another cost of doing business in Maine.”

McCollister said a proposal earlier this year by LePage to require truth-testing for political ads in Maine by the state’s ethics commission was unrealistic as it would have cost the state too much money to enact. He said that if LePage seriously wanted more honesty in Maine political campaigns, the governor would support the changes advocated by the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

“This is incredibly appropriate, and it’s fitting that Angus King is leading the charge on the national level against dark money, while in the backdrop here in Maine, citizens are coming together to kick off a campaign to strengthen our campaign finance laws as well,” McCollister said.

McCollister said he wasn’t surprised that that Center for Competitive Politics, an out-of-state organization, would send a letter to Maine officials on the eve of King’s hearing.

“Sen. King and Maine citizens are taking a lead in pushing back against these rulings with reforms that put voters first, while [Center for Competitive Politics] is spending time trying to pass laws and reforms that put donors first,” McCollister said.

Meanwhile, candidates on the statewide campaign trail in Maine, including those running for the U.S. Senate and governor, have also made a point of either rejecting political action committee funding outright or of denouncing its undue influence on American politics.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, said the landmark Citizens United ruling undermined Maine’s publicly financed campaigns by allowing virtually unlimited spending by undisclosed donors for privately financed campaigns.

“We need to reduce the influence of money in politics,” Michaud said. “Maine’s Clean Election law was working to limit the influence of big money in elections and to create opportunities for candidates that don’t have deep pockets or connections to wealthy donors. Things have only gotten worse as the Supreme Court has further undermined reasonable limits on the amount wealthy individuals can spend on elections.”

Michaud said Congress needs to act, and it’s why he’s a co-sponsor of two different constitutional amendments that would overturn the Citizens United decisions.

Brent Littlefield, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said they had no comment on King’s hearing Wednesday.

“On campaign money in general, I would just point out the massive $300,000 put into Maine politics to help Michael Michaud through the Democratic Party by out-of-state big labor bosses in Washington, D.C., on top of the other money he is siphoning from liberal special interests,” Littlefield said in an email message to the Sun Journal.

Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, has r efused to take political action committee money for his campaign.

“I want to do as much as we can to diminish the influence of money in politics because I think it is corroding our democracy — basically stealing it from the voters,” Cutler said Tuesday. “With Angus’ leadership in the Senate drawing attention to this problem, which is huge, it’s going to help us in Maine.”

U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, a Democrat running against incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, also has focused her campaign on small donors and small donations.

“Dark money is especially dangerous because of the secrecy inherent in how the wealthiest people flood the political system with untraceable cash, giving them the ability to control public policy,” Bellows said. “I’m proud that in contrast to my opponent, Republican Susan Collins, my campaign is not receiving any corporate [political action committee] money from groups like ExxonMobil and Bank of America.”

Bellows’ campaign staff said 97 percent of her campaign donations are from individual donors compared with 44 percent of Collins’ donations. The staff also said the average donation to the Bellows campaign was $52, and the mean contribution was $5.

Collins’ campaign spokesman, Lance Dutson, said Bellows’ campaign staff were contributing many of the smaller donations to skew the average downward.

“Sen. Collins has been a leader for campaign finance reform and transparency since the day she started in the U.S. Senate,” Dutson said. “She continues to advocate for reforms, most recently joining with Sen. [Jon] Tester, D-Montana, in an effort to increase transparency.”

He said Bellows is trying to “have it both ways.”

“Ironically, she is in Washington, D.C., right now trying to raise money from big out-of-state donors,” Dutson said.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.