AUGUSTA — A lawyer who represents Republican legislative candidates asked the state’s ethics commission Thursday whether his clients can use clean election money for radio ads that express their support for Question 1, the repeal of broad tax changes passed last year.

But the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices declined to get involved, saying it would rather wait to see whether the ads air and, if they do, whether someone files a complaint about them.

Dan Billings, the Republicans’ attorney, said taking a stand on a major public issue is “a traditional campaign tactic.”

“It’s not unusual for a candidate to tie the campaign to a referendum question,” he said. “I see this as a campaign-related purpose.”

The state’s clean election system is supported by taxpayers’ money. Legislative and gubernatorial candidates can use the money if they meet certain requirements.

Billings provided the commission with a script of the proposed ad, which reads in part:

“The politicians in Augusta voted to raise our taxes; what’s worse, they think we are too stupid to figure it out. Luckily, men and women across Maine initiated a people’s veto that will appear on the June 8 ballot as Question 1 “

It ends with: “This is XXX XXX, candidate for the state Senate in District X. I’m running for the Legislature because the Legislature in Augusta just doesn’t get it I will bring change to the Legislature, but first, I am voting YES on Question 1 to send a message to Augusta that enough is enough.”

Question 1 would repeal the law passed last year to lower income taxes and apply the sales tax to more than 100 previously untaxed items to make up the difference. It has been a strongly partisan issue, with Democrats supporting it and all but one Republican legislator opposing it.

Alison Smith, co-chair of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said the ethics commission should not be in the business of passing judgment on “hypothetical radio ads.”

“It is clear that public funds are for promoting a specific candidate’s own campaign and not any other purpose,” she said.

Guidelines written by the commission say clean election money may not be used to “make independent expenditures supporting or opposing any candidate, ballot measure or political committee” or to “promote political or social positions or causes other than the candidate’s campaign.”

On Wednesday, No Higher Taxes for Maine, a group that opposes Question 1, said in a news release that the commission should reject Billings’ request, calling it a “brazen attempt to raid the Clean Election fund, which is financed by Maine taxpayers.”

Commission Chairman Walter McKee said the script, as written, is “going to be a problem for somebody.”

He said Billings and the candidates he represents can think about whether to move forward based on comments made by commission members.

“This radio spot, to me, for the primary purpose, is less about the candidate,” said commission member Margaret Matheson.

Billings said he was disappointed that he didn’t get an opinion from the commission.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We have candidates who are trying to play by the rules and came forward with a specific request for advice.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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