Two decades ago, Maine voters strongly supported the creation of a public funding system for legislative and gubernatorial races. Last November, they affirmed that support by voting to allocate more money to the Maine Clean Election Fund.
But the Clean Election Fund is often raided to pay other state bills. As a result, it is currently $1.7 million short of what is needed to cover this fall’s anticipated campaign payouts. A budget compromise currently being considered by lawmakers does not include this funding to repay the fund. If the Clean Election money runs out, candidates will be allowed to collect private donations, undermining the purpose of public financing.
If Maine is to maintain a public campaign financing system, which voters have repeatedly said they want, the system must be funded in order for it to be functional.
Since 2003, lawmakers have transferred $9.4 million out of the Clean Election Fund for use elsewhere in the state budget. Since 2009, they have failed to allocate another $2.5 million to the fund that was destined for it under state law. The Legislature has returned some of the money — $5.6 million — through subsequent appropriations, but that means that over time, the Clean Election Fund has operated $6.4 million short of the full amount it was supposed to have by law.
The Legislature ameliorated the shortfall a bit in 2013 when it suspended Clean Election funding for gubernatorial candidates the following year.
For the 2016 campaign, Jonathan Wayne, director of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, anticipates spending $6.3 million. That total includes setting aside $1.4 million for the 2018 elections, which will include a governor’s race, and $700,000 to pay for administration at the commission.
With these two items included, there is a $1.7 million shortfall between what the commission expects to allocate to candidates in 2016 and the money it has on hand. The Appropriations Committee Thursday afternoon approved a bill to advance $500,000 from the expected 2017 allocation to be used this year.
This is a small help but if full funding isn’t forthcoming, there may not be enough to fulfill the fund’s commitment to candidates seeking to be elected to the Legislature in November. After a decline in recent election cycles, more candidates have signed up for Clean Election funding this year.
Of the 402 candidates who have registered with the Ethics Commission for 2016 legislative campaigns, 273 — or 67 percent — have indicated they will use the Clean Election system, compared with just 53 percent in 2014.
This year, candidates for state representative who face primary and general election opponents can receive up to $7,500 in initial payments. For state Senate candidates, the maximum is $30,000 — $10,000 for a contested primary and $20,000 for the general election.
In the past, candidates using the Clean Election system could receive matching funds to meet the spending of privately funded opponents or groups acting on their behalf. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this type of funding, and Maine subsequently dropped it.
As part of last year’s Clean Election ballot question, voters approved a new system of supplemental payments. If a publicly financed candidate feels she needs more money, she can collect additional $5 qualifying contributions and then receive more money from the state, up to an additional $10,000 for House candidates and $40,000 for Senate candidates.
Because the supplemental payments are new, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices does not know how many candidates will use them and how much additional funding they will seek.
In addition to supplemental payments, Maine’s Clean Election system has another improvement this year. Legislators who use the public financing system are no longer able to manage political action committees. This ends the common practice of candidates using the Clean Election system to get elected, then raising and doling out private money to help their colleagues’ election efforts in hopes of gaining leadership posts. Most current lawmakers who have leadership or other PACs have chosen not to seek Clean Election funding this year rather than terminating their PAC.
Voters have reaffirmed their support for Maine’s Clean Election system. A major loophole in the system has closed. Now it is up to lawmakers to fund it.