Terry Hayes, an independent running for governor as a Clean Election candidate, shakes hands with people arriving to vote at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, June 12, 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine ethics regulators slashed payments to taxpayer-funded campaigns by nearly three-quarters, and advocates teased a lawsuit on Wednesday as Gov. Paul LePage and Republican allies have the system in a tough spot ahead of the 2018 elections.

The Clean Election program, which was enshrined by Maine voters in 1996 and beefed up again by referendum in 2015, is in danger of being reduced to near ineffectiveness for the November election. It could alter the gubernatorial campaign of independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes and the campaigns of up to another 200 legislative candidates.

LePage has refused to sign routine financial orders allowing the Maine Ethics Commission — which administers the Clean Election fund — to increase the amount of already appropriated money that it can spend before June 30. House Republicans also held up a bill fixing a legislative drafting error that would keep the fund from spending money as of July 1.

Those two moves have combined to leave the commission — which Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said has $5 million in its accounts — from spending more than an allotment of just $390,000 by week’s end. That’s only about 28 percent of the nearly $1.4 million owed right now to 120 candidates who have qualified for additional payments.

On Wednesday, the four-member commission unanimously endorsed reducing those payments to 28 percent of the amount owed to each candidate. For example, Hayes will get roughly $98,000 of the $350,000 that she will have qualified for under the program if a new round of qualifying contributions are accepted by the commission. She has already received $800,000.

Commissioners noted their solution was imperfect, yet the fairest way to divide a disappearing pool of money. The interim solution was endorsed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Later in the day, the advocacy group said in a press advisory that it would file a Thursday lawsuit on behalf on candidates that could force LePage to release the money.

Commissioner William Lee, a Democrat and attorney from Waterville, said before that threat was levied that the state may be “inviting litigation” from candidates by weakening the fund. But he said dividing the money another way would be “playing Solomon.”

The Clean Election fund is still one of the marquee items to be decided on in a contentious legislative session that will stretch on into July after lawmakers left Augusta Tuesday. A $100 million transportation bond and legislation to conform Maine to the federal tax code also remain.

Early Wednesday morning, Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said on the House floor that he knew about the Clean Election drafting error when the current two-year budget that broke a state shutdown passed last July because of Republican opposition to the program, and “I knew we’d get another whack at it.”

Nearly 77 percent of Democratic legislative candidates are using the program, compared with just 27 percent of Republicans, though 40 percent of Senate Republican candidates are using it. More would likely join under normal circumstances by a July deadline for parties to replace nominees who bow out of their races.

Hayes, the only Clean Election candidate in the four-way governor’s race, said in an interview that the dispute over the budget error is “partisan nonsense” and said it’s “precisely why I need to be Maine’s next governor.”

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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...