Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, is pictured at the Maine State House on May 21, 2015. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A measure moving through the Maine Legislature to restrict business contributions to legislative campaigns would weaken one path to influence for lawmakers, though businesses and nonprofits would still have ways to affect races.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, and also led by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would ban direct contributions from businesses and other corporations to candidates. It would also take aim at contributions to political action committees controlled by legislators that are not subject to the same contribution limits as candidate campaigns.

Those so-called “leadership PACs” account for a relatively small portion of the money that flows into Maine politics every year, but they are notable because they are affiliated with prominent lawmakers. Committees typically use their money to donate to candidates or pay for advertising or mailers in key races, though there are few restrictions on how the money can be used.

While the measure would sever direct links between corporate money in politics and state lawmakers, it may simply reshuffle how money enters races and has not encountered significant pushback from the state’s business community. No one testified against it at a public hearing in late April and it passed out of committee along party lines last week.

Proponents, including Democrats and state and national progressive groups, have promoted it as a way to crack down on the influence of corporate money in politics. Nearly two dozen other states already ban direct corporate contributions to political campaigns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Maine allows businesses to donate directly to candidates. But that money is a relatively small share of fundraising for legislative campaigns in Maine. Contributions from businesses made up less than $100,000 out of the more than $6.3 million that went to campaigns in 2020, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis of campaign finance data.

Individual contributions and self-funding still make up the most significant sources of legislative political fundraising and would not be affected by the bill. While corporations would not be allowed to donate to candidates under the bill, they would still be allowed to set up separate funds, similar to corporate PACs at the federal level, which could give to candidates. Those funds would rely on employee contributions instead of contributions from corporate profits.

Other political committees — such as caucus and party groups — would also be barred from donating to candidates under the bill. They would still be allowed to spend independently on behalf of them, which is their major function. These political committees would also still be allowed to accept corporate contributions.

The bill received pushback from Republicans during a work session last week for singling out certain groups, with lawmakers noting small Maine businesses would be treated the same as large out-of-state corporations while the bill includes a carve-out for unions, allowing them to contribute to candidates without setting up a separate fund.

“It doesn’t address the vast amount of money that the organized labor unions donate to the campaigns,” said Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock.

Labor unions, as several lawmakers noted, give almost universally to Democrats at the state legislative level. But the effects of the exemption would likely be small as unions mostly make independent expenditures or contribute to caucus PACs, and made few contributions to leadership PACs and candidates in 2020.

But the bill would have a much more significant impact on leadership PACs, which have relied on businesses as their biggest single fundraising source over the past few years, the BDN’s analysis found. Between 2017 and 2020, contributions from businesses and nonprofits accounted for 43 percent of the $1.8 million raised by leadership PACs over the four-year period. Contributions from individuals accounted for only 29 percent of that fundraising..

The bill would also apply the contribution limits used for legislative candidates to leadership PACs, which could significantly alter how these PACs fundraise, relying on the same thresholds used for donations to legislative candidates, which are adjusted for inflation and currently sit at $425 per election cycle. Contributions greater than that amount accounted for 86 percent of leadership PACs’ fundraising between 2017 and 2020. Twenty-five contributions of $10,000 or more accounted for nearly a quarter of the PACs’ fundraising during that period.

The top-spending leadership PACs in 2020 belonged to Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

Luchini, the bill’s sponsor and co-chair of the voting panel, has no leadership PAC and said he had not talked with colleagues who have PACs about concerns with the bill’s effect on fundraising. Jackson, the co-sponsor, had a leadership PAC that was terminated in 2016.

Luchini said he would have liked to see the bill go further in limiting the influence of corporate money in state politics, but was limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which says corporate political spending is protected as a form of free speech.

“Some of the changes I’d love to see we just can’t do because of that decision,” Luchini said. “So you’ll still see corporate money go into PACs of all sorts, and that could be party PACs or caucus PACs or just traditional PACs, and we just wanted to cut off that direct link from the corporation to the individual.”