Voters stream into the Woodfords Club in Portland June 12 a few minutes after the polls opened at 7 a.m. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

AUGUSTA, Maine — Advocates for taxpayer-funded campaigns filed a lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage and his administration on Thursday in a bid to force him to release at least $1.4 million in Clean Election money that is owed to 120 Maine gubernatorial and legislative candidates.

The program established by Maine voters in 1996 is in jeopardy for the November election. The Republican governor has refused to sign a routine financial order increasing the amount of appropriated money that the program can dole out before June 30. House Republicans have held up a bill to fix a legislative error that will keep the fund from spending money as of July 1.

That leaves the Maine Ethics Commission — which administers the fund — in a difficult spot. While the commission has $5 million, it only can allocate $390,000 on the Clean Election system by week’s end, though 120 candidates may be owed just less than $1.4 million by then. On Wednesday, commissioners reduced payments to candidates accordingly — by 72 percent.

All of this led Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group that advocates for the public campaign financing system, to file Thursday’s lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court on behalf of seven legislative candidates and four Clean Election donors against LePage and his budget department.

It seeks to force LePage to release the funds owed to candidates by June 30, alleging that the governor is violating a section of the Maine Constitution saying laws must be “faithfully executed” and that LePage can’t undermine laws by restricting the flow of money. It asks the court to order the release of the $1.4 million and to hold a court hearing within 10 days.

The lawsuit doesn’t mention the controversy around the error in state law, but John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said “the same legal principles” apply to that case.

A LePage spokeswoman declined comment on Thursday, but the governor has long opposed the Clean Election program. Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who is running for governor, said Mills won’t be involved in the case and attorneys assigned to the commission “will review the filing and respond appropriately in due course.”

One of the candidates most harmed under current circumstances be independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who is running for governor. She has received $800,000 under the program to date and may qualify for $350,000 more by week’s end. She’ll only get $98,000 if the current situation continues.

In the tight races for partisan control for both chambers of the Maine Legislature, 77 percent of Democrats are running as Clean Election candidates to just 27 percent of Republicans. But 40 percent of Senate Republicans are using the program and more would likely join it if it’s available by July.

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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...