Ann Luther, president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, addresses reporters at the State House. Credit: BDN File

AUGUSTA, Maine — Backers of Maine’s public campaign system won a battle with Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday after a judge ruled that roughly $1 million in taxpayer funds must be paid to gubernatorial and legislative candidates after the governor tried to block them.

It could be only the beginning of a court fight around the embattled Maine Clean Election program, which was created by Maine voters in 1996 and beefed up by referendum in 2015. For now, a legal drafting error that the Legislature hasn’t fixed is keeping other funds from being paid to candidates.

The lawsuit came in June after LePage, a Republican, refused to sign financial orders that would have allowed the Maine Ethics Commission — which administers the program — to increase the amount of money that it could give to qualifying candidates before the end of the last fiscal year on June 30.

Before that, the commission voted to reduce payments to Clean Election candidates to match the amount in the fund. Independent Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes — the only Clean Election gubernatorial candidate — and legislative hopefuls got a total of $467,000 — only about 26 percent of the $1.4 million that they had qualified for, according to commission data.

Maine Superior Court Justice William Stokes ruled Thursday that a financial order wasn’t required because of the “unique and specific nature” of the Clean Election fund, ordering the state to make the money available to candidates within three days.

The lawsuit was led by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group that advocates for the program, on behalf of seven legislative candidates and four Clean Election donors. They argued that LePage violated a section of the Constitution saying laws must be “faithfully executed.”

LePage’s lawyer said in court last week that the governor has the power to block financial transfers in all state agencies. The governor could appeal Stokes’ ruling to Maine’s high court. LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the office is “studying the decision and considering options.”

The lawsuit only pertains to money earmarked for the program before July 1. Far more money in the Clean Election fund right now — just under $4.8 million in all — is locked away due to a drafting error in a budget bill passed by the Legislature last year to end a state shutdown.

John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said Thursday that the decision set a “good precedent” and that his group will evaluate it promptly to see if it applies to the other disputed money.

The program is the main reason that the Legislature is still in session, though lawmakers were supposed to end work in April. Republicans in the House of Representatives — who largely oppose the Clean Election program — have held up a fix in a leverage battle with Democrats.

In turn, Democrats have held up a bipartisan plan to conform Maine to the new federal tax code. Lawmakers were expected to return to Augusta last week to consider a deal, but that didn’t happen and negotiations between legislative leaders haven’t yet resulted in a framework.

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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...