William Stokes

A Superior Court judge said he will soon rule on whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage can single-handedly withhold more than $1 million in public campaign funds from more than 100 legislative candidates and one candidate who is running for governor.

[Maine public campaign funding hangs in limbo as lawmakers keep squabbling]

Judge William Stokes heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that could also affect the future of Maine’s landmark Clean Election program that voters approved more than 20 years ago.

The oral arguments in Androscoggin County Superior Court lasted more than an hour, and they centered on technical and arcane budget control provisions of state government, as well as the discretionary authority of a governor who is testing its limits in this and several other cases.

This case is brought by seven candidates in the Maine Clean Election program, as well as people who have donated to it. The taxpayer-financed program distributes payments to candidates who collect a set amount of $5 checks to qualify.

[LePage sued for not releasing $1.4 million for taxpayer-funded campaigns]

LePage has long opposed the program, and he’s previously taken steps to gut its funding. Now he is attempting to assert authority over funds that have already been budgeted.

John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said LePage has grossly overstepped his bounds.

“It’s not a suggestion,” Brautigam said. “It’s a law, and it’s binding on all parts of state government, and the governor has a constitutional duty to faithfully execute the law. And we don’t see that happening here, and that’s why we’re in court.”

But Patrick Strawbridge, LePage’s attorney, argues that the governor does have the authority to unilaterally block budgeted funds from flowing to the Maine Ethics Commission, the agency that administers the Clean Election program. Strawbridge said it’s the same authority that the governor has when he signs financial orders for other agencies.

He also said the court can’t tell the governor when to sign those financial orders. Nor, said Strawbridge, can it force LePage to provide an explanation when he refuses to do so.

During oral arguments, Judge William Stokes seemed to acknowledge Strawbridge’s argument, but then Stokes posed a hypothetical question: What if LePage himself was running for re-election? And what if his opponent was a Clean Election candidate?

“So the sitting governor can prevent his opponent from accessing Clean Election funds … for no reason?” Stokes asked.

Strawbridge said that might be a legitimate concern, but there are remedies if such a thing were to happen.

But David Kallin, the attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said Stokes’ hypothetical scenario was effectively happening right now, and that it could tip the scales in races with candidates who qualified for public funds. Of the $1.4 million that LePage is blocking, just over $100,000 is supposed to go to Republican legislative candidates. The rest is designated to go to Democrats and independent candidates.

“So to say that we don’t have a case where the governor is withholding money from his opponent is to make a distinction without a difference,” Kallin said. “We have a case where the governor, without justification, is thwarting a legislative mandate that the funds be paid.”

LePage is term-limited and leaves office this year. But his move to block funds, combined with the refusal by Republican House members to fix a typo in the law that provides additional Clean Election funds to be used this year, could affect legislative elections and the power composition of the next Legislature.

Walter Riseman, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is running for a House seat in a district that includes his hometown of Harrison. He said he’s qualified for several thousands of dollars that he needs to defeat party-backed candidates.

“And as an independent, I don’t have the same kind of resources someone in a party might have,” he said. “So it’s really important that I get all the money that I’m owed.”

Linda Sanborn, another plaintiff, is taking on Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican Senate leader who has traditionally received backing from Maine businesses. Sanborn is waiting for more than $30,000 that she’s qualified for, and she said the delay has affected her campaign.

“I was hoping to make some videos, but I’m holding on that until I know whether I have the funds to be able to create those or not,” she said.

Supporters of the Clean Election program say Sanborn and other candidates are facing similar choices — choices that grow more difficult as the Governor’s actions tip the scales against them.

Stokes acknowledged the need to rule quickly, and said that he hoped to have a ruling next week. Regardless of his decision, Stokes said, he fully expects the loser to appeal.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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