The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, is suing the Maine Municipal Association, accusing it of illegally using taxpayer money to fund political campaigns.

According to the lawsuit, filed Wednesday afternoon in Kennebec County Superior Court, the Maine Heritage Policy Center claims MMA has spent nearly $2 million through political action committees to influence citizen-initiated referenda over the past decade.

This funding, the center says, violates the U.S. and Maine constitutions by allowing government to “take sides” in the political process, which infringes on the public’s freedom of speech.

The MMA is a nonprofit whose members include nearly all of Maine’s 489 municipal governments. It is funded by member dues and revenue from an insurance business it operates on their behalf.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center claims MMA is essentially a government entity because it claims exemption to Maine’s sales tax and federal income tax, is almost entirely run by officers who are also municipal employees, and “has assumed functions of local government.”

These functions include providing legal counsel, information technology help and other supplementary services, said David Crocker, director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s Center for Constitutional Government and the lead lawyer bringing the case.

Plaintiffs include three signers of petitions that put citizens’ initiatives that MMA opposed on the ballot: Mary Adams, of Garland; Jack Wibby, of Gray; and Pem Schaeffer, of Brunswick.

Cyr Plantation, an Aroostook County town and MMA member that had 117 residents in 2000, is also a co-plaintiff in the suit.

The MMA said the premise of the lawsuit is flawed.

“Governmental entities pass laws, enact regulations and pass ordinances. We don’t do any of that,” said the group’s spokesman, Eric Conrad. “We provide professional services to our members as a nonprofit organization.”

He said the MMA was established in 1936 to keep municipalities informed about issues affecting them in Augusta. The group openly lobbies legislators on behalf of their members and discloses related expenditures to the Maine Ethics Commission, as is required by law.

“We’ve been involved in the legislative arena and citizen initiatives for years,” Conrad said.

“We think it’s very important that when citizens’ initiatives come forward that would significantly reduce municipal services — like police and fire response, road maintenance and many others — it’s our moral imperative to tell citizens what the significance of those initiatives would be before they vote.”

The lawsuit asks that MMA return nearly $2 million to municipalities and be barred from making similar PAC contributions in the future.

The MMA and the Maine Heritage Policy Center have clashed on several campaigns spawned by citizens’ initiatives over the past few years, including both Taxpayer Bills of Rights, in 2006 and 2009; and a 2009 effort to slash Maine’s automobile excise tax, a prime source of municipal revenue.

Crocker, the Maine Heritage Policy Center attorney, was a leader of the 2009 TABOR campaign; the center also authored both of the tax-and-spending limitation laws that were eventually rejected by voters at the polls.

“The Maine Heritage Policy Center has an unpopular political agenda,” Conrad said. “TABOR II failed by 60 percent to 40 percent among voters, and the excise tax initiative failed by 75 to 25 percent.”

Conrad acknowledged the lawsuit’s claim that money the association donated to political campaigns originated from taxes paid to municipalities, which were then paid to the MMA as dues. 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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