The Maine Ethics Commission has asked the Legislature for an additional $1.7 million to cover the cost of this year’s taxpayer-funded elections, which it expects could cost up to $11 million.

LD 1780, which was unveiled in Tuesday’s House of Representatives calendar on behalf of the commission, is straightforward: It requests a transfer from unappropriated surplus funds to the Maine Clean Election Fund “in order to ensure that adequate funds are available to candidates participating in the Maine Clean Election Act.”

Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said it remains unclear which and how many publicly funded candidates will be on the primary and general election ballots this year, but the commission estimates it could need approximately $11 million to cover everyone.

The Maine Clean Election fund currently contains about $6.4 million and is due for another $3 million transfer in June. A 2015 referendum on campaign finance reform, among other things, directed the Legislature to appropriate $6 million to the fund every two years. Lavin said the current biennial budget does that.

“We use our experience in past elections to figure out what the participation rates will be,” said Lavin. “We make a projection to ensure that there will be enough.”

How much the fund will need will be clearer by April 20, which is the final deadline for 2018 candidates to qualify. Lavin said that if there is not enough to cover them, the law allows them to collect private donations up to the limits defined in the public campaign finance law.

The Maine Clean Election Act was implemented in 1996 by citizen referendum. Candidates for the Legislature and governor have the option of using the taxpayer-funded system in lieu of relying on private donations. It was designed to keep special interest money out of elections, and the majority of legislative candidates use it — though it has never been without controversy.

The potential 2018 field of gubernatorial candidates could bankrupt the system. Of the 25 gubernatorial candidates who are listed as active on the Maine Ethics Commission’s website, nine are attempting to qualify for public funding.

Participants qualify for the program by collecting $5 qualifying contributions. The threshold for contributions depends on the office they seek, with gubernatorial candidates needing the highest total. They can also collect $100 “seed money” contributions totalling up to $1,000 for House candidates, $3,000 for Senate candidates and $200,000 for gubernatorial candidates.

Following a 2015 referendum that implemented a number of reforms and increased disbursement amounts, combined initial payouts for contested primary and general election candidates are $7,600 for the House, $30,400 for the Senate and $1 million for gubernatorial candidates. Candidates can then receive supplemental payments if they collect additional qualifying contributions.

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, is the only GOP gubernatorial candidate seeking to run a publicly financed campaign. Mason co-chairs the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which will vote on a recommendation to send to the full Legislature in the coming weeks. Mason said he hasn’t decided his stance on the bill yet and wants to learn more about why more funding might be needed.

Even though his campaign could benefit from the additional appropriation, Mason said he will not recuse himself from debates or votes on the matter and that none of the other participants should, either.

“If clean election candidates had to recuse themselves from voting on clean elections bills, there would be no one to vote on this stuff,” said Mason.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is running for governor as a privately financed gubernatorial candidate, said he would also not recuse himself, although his campaign could arguably benefit from his opponents’ lack of access to funding.

“I don’t see clean election funding as a high priority and I won’t be supporting it,” Fredette said in a written statement.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who is a privately financed gubernatorial candidate, did not respond to a request for comment.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, is running for governor as a publicly funded candidate. Dion also could not be reached for comment.

Anna Kellar, joint executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said the likelihood is “relatively low” that the fund could run out of money this year, but she is pleased that the Ethics Commission is erring on the side of fiscal prudence.

“Rather than take a chance on last-minute problems, it is better to have an insurance policy,” she said in a written statement. “If it isn’t needed, [the funding] will roll over into the next cycle. … The fund is like your checking account: you don’t plan for a zero balance.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.