AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday that Question 1, promoting statewide election reform, is “a scam” aimed at making the “wealthy wealthier and the poor people dumb.”

The proposal on the November ballot would boost Maine’s taxpayer-funded election system by increasing its two-year allocation from $4 million to $6 million, adding transparency requirements and increasing penalties for election law violations.

The Republican governor is a longtime opponent of the Maine Clean Election Act. He has called it “welfare for politicians,” tried to defund it and was a surprise guest at a State House news conference by Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians, a conservative group formed to oppose Question 1.

“This is the biggest scam on Maine people,” he said Wednesday. “This is truly, truly about … getting the wealthy wealthier and the poor people dumb.”

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group that’s backing Question 1, said money in politics is “the real scam.”

“Our democracy is being corrupted by the role of big money in politics,” he said. “As a result, the voices of everyday people are being drowned out when it comes to our elections and when it comes to our lawmakers focusing on important priorities that we need addressed.”

The ballot question would make changes to Maine’s clean election law, which was passed in 1996. However, it has been weakened in recent years by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and underfunding.

It originally allowed publicly funded candidates to get “matching funds,” released when privately funded opponents outspent them, but those were deemed unconstitutional in 2011 and an earlier landmark decision struck down limits on spending from outside groups in political races.

Since then, Maine’s public campaign financing participation has dropped and outside money has flooded in. In 2008, 81 percent of legislative candidates were in the program and only 53 percent were in 2014, and outside spending in legislative races rose from $600,000 in 2008 to $3.6 million in 2012, according to Bossie’s group.

The system allows candidates to qualify for public funding by getting small dollar “seed” contributions. Question 1 would give qualifying general election candidates an initial amount of money — $5,000 for House candidates and $20,000 in the Senate — and allow them to unlock more public money by getting more seed contributions.

Those races are capped at $5,700 and $25,100, counting private and seed money. Under Question 1, they’d be capped at up to $16,500 and $65,000. Gubernatorial candidates, who were barred from the program in 2014, would be limited to $3.2 million.

Mainers for Accountable Elections, the main group backing Question 1, raised $1.3 million through September, and Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians, led by Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, has criticized them for having large, out-of-state donors.

But opponents have their work cut out for them. Stetkis has said his group will likely raise just “thousands” to fight it, and they’re counting on voters who think Question 1 is a waste of money.

“After years and years of chronically underfunding our nursing homes, how can we afford to give politicians more campaign welfare?” Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...