AUGUSTA, Maine — The state agency tasked with monitoring and enforcing the state’s campaign finance and lobbying laws is looking for additional funding to increase transparency about the money spent in Maine politics.
The request, included in a list of changes to Maine statute proposed by Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne, would divert the entirety of state revenue from lobbyist registration fees to the commission.
The commission receives half of all lobbying fees, and the other half goes to the state’s General Fund.
Any group that hires a lobbyist is required to file a joint registration for that lobbyist with the Maine Ethics Commission. Each registration costs $200. In recent years, the commission has received between $55,000 and $65,000 annually, according to Wayne.
The amount given to the General Fund could better be used to increase the commission’s transparency efforts, Wayne argued in a letter to commissioners.
“Businesses, nonprofits and others are subsidizing the general costs of Maine government — just for the privilege of petitioning the Legislature,” Wayne said in the letter. “Instead, the commission staff would like to propose that our agency receive the entire fee and use the increased revenue for [information technology] expenses to better disclose lobbying and campaign finance information to the public.”
In an interview Wednesday, Wayne said that interest in campaign finance has increased in recent years after Supreme Court decisions paved the way for political spending to grow dramatically, seemingly breaking new records every election cycle.
“There is more money flowing into state election races, and I think there’s more concern about how campaigns are financed than there was 10 years ago,” he said. “That puts pressure on the state to be doing its best to get the information out to the public.”
There are probably few people in the state who dig through the campaign finance records available from the commission more than Naomi Schalit, publisher and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. Schalit said there are certain queries that require the user to pore over pages and pages of data just to find one contribution or expenditure — a time-consuming chore that is often daunting for the general public.
Schalit said Wednesday that she has no position on how the commission’s efforts should be funded, but seeking out specific information on mainecampaignfinance.com — the commission’s public disclosure website, managed by a third party — should be easier.
“It’s much better than it used to be, but it could certainly use improvements,” she said. “As a professional, I can usually figure out how to make it work to get what I need. But I can tell you that we get lots of calls and emails from the public to our organization asking ‘How can I find this information?’”
BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said it makes sense for the commission to receive the entire lobbyist registration fee.
“The idea here is that those who are trying to influence our legislative process ought to pay for the oversight of that process,” he said. The Maine Ethics Commission is already funded, in part, by General Fund money, he added. So directing the lobbyist registration fee directly to the commission, rather than into the General Gund, is not a radical idea, he said.
McCollister also said that Wayne’s proposal to improve the public disclosure system is a good one.
“The current system is almost impossible to use. It’s very difficult for voters to find out who’s giving, how much and for whom,” he said.
Wayne said the improvements he’d like to see include not only those to the public-facing transparency efforts but to the back-end filing process for lobbyists, candidates and campaign groups sending in the legally required registration and disclosure forms. A handful of candidates and groups this year complained that the process for filing was too confusing or difficult, which caused them to miss important deadlines.
Ethics commissioners will meet to discuss Wayne’s proposals on Nov. 23. Those accepted by the commission will be bundled into a bill for legislative consideration.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.