When voters in 1996 approved Maine’s Clean Election public funding system for state candidates, they were told it would lessen the influence of money in politics. But lawmakers in Augusta, especially legislative leaders, carved out a big loophole for themselves — they collect private money through leadership political action committees.

In 2014, 29 candidates ran leadership PACs; 14 of them accepted Clean Election funds. According to a Maine Citizens for Clean Elections study, between 2002 and 2012, more than $12 million flowed into legislative campaigns through PACs controlled by candidates and legislators, many of whom depended on Clean Election funds to run their campaigns.

To qualify for Clean Election funds, which are state taxpayer dollars, candidates must collect small qualifying contributions to show public interest in their campaign. State House candidates are allowed to raise (only from individuals) and spend $500 in seed money to collect the required 60 qualifying contributions, each of $5 or more. Senate candidates can raise $1,500 to collect the required 175 qualifying $5 contributions. After collecting the seed money, Clean Election candidates cannot accept donations.

House candidates could receive up to $6,153 in 2014 to fund a contested primary campaign, plus the general election. Senate candidates could receive up to $29,108.

Even as lawmakers run for office using Clean Election money, they can create leadership PACs, accept money from large donors — including political parties and corporate- and union-backed groups — and make expenditures to help allied candidates win their elections. The idea is that, as lawmakers and aspiring lawmakers help out members of their caucus, they curry favor that allows them to gain support as they make bids for leadership positions.

“Some believe that if a Clean Elections candidate accepts public money for his or her own campaign in the interest of remaining free from obligation to special interests, that public money is wasted if he or she incurs obligations to special interests through fundraising for his or her leadership PAC,” the Maine League of Women Voters said in a report in January 2012. “However, the same concern might be raised for legislators who raise money for their caucus PAC or for their party committee. These legislators are aspiring leaders in their respective political parties, and it is understood to be the duty of party and caucus leaders to do fundraising for their party or caucus.”

The League of Women Voters has long called for reforms to this system. Legislation to close these loopholes, proposed several times over the years, has so far been unsuccessful. Again this year, a group of lawmakers have proposed reforms.

One such bill, LD 204, is sponsored by second-term Democratic Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford. Her bill would prohibit lawmakers who used the Clean Election system to get elected from establishing leadership PACs.

“I feel it is wrong to accept public money to run for office and at the same time, raise money from special interest groups to fund a leadership PAC,” she said recently.

Supporters of Maine’s Clean Elections system believe the same rules should apply to all candidates, not just those supported by the public funding system. They favor LD 691, sponsored by Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. It would prohibit any candidate or legislator, regardless of whether he or she used Clean Election funds, from participating in a PAC or election-related nonprofit, with the exception of work on ballot questions.

If “dirty money” is a problem, it is a problem for all candidates, said John Brautigam, who served in the Legislature from 2004 to 2008 and is now an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

It is especially hypocritical, however, for candidates who accept Clean Election money for their campaigns to then turn around and run a PAC once they’re elected. Lawmakers should start by closing this loophole.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...