Fewer candidates for the Maine Legislature are running publicly financed campaigns this year under the state’s newly amended, and less generous, Clean Election Act.

Unlike in past years, candidates who run with public funding in 2012 won’t be able to get additional money if their privately funded opponents outspend them.

At least 38 percent of the 438 legislative candidates this year will run privately financed campaigns, according to new state data. That compares with 30 percent in 2010.

Candidates who want Clean Election funding were required to file qualification papers last week with the state ethics commission. The commission was still reviewing the papers Monday and won’t have final numbers until later this week, said Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.

A total of 272 candidates – 62 percent – declared their intention to run with public funding this year, although some did not follow through and others may not qualify.

The shift toward private financing shows that public funding is now less appealing to some candidates, experts said. But the numbers also show that Clean Election financing still works for many.

“I’m not surprised to see a decrease in the number of candidates using Clean Election funds,” said Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “But using it still has certain advantages.”

Clean Election candidates, for example, don’t have to spend time or resources raising money, she said. But they now have to weigh the risk of running up against well-heeled opponents who dramatically outspend them in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Probably most races will still be fairly low-cost. But you don’t necessarily know if certain groups will come in – maybe out-of-state groups – and contribute to your opponent,” Fried said.

The Republican-led Legislature eliminated matching funds from the Clean Election Act with a new law signed by Gov. LePage in March. Maine had to change its law because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that matching money for publicly funded candidates is unconstitutional.

Democrats argued for a new mechanism to finance candidates who run up against wealthier opponents, saying the Clean Election Act has successfully reduced the influence of big money in Maine politics.

Republicans, however, said the law and the matching funds amounted to welfare for politicians at taxpayers’ expense.

To qualify for Clean Election funding in 2012, a candidate had to raise a certain number of donations of $5 or more from registered voters – seed money – by Friday. House candidates needed at least 60 contributions and Senate candidates needed at least 175.

Once candidates prove they have the seed money, they can receive a set amount of public funding for the primary – as much as $7,359 for Senate candidates and $1,429 for House candidates.

Those who win their primaries can get more money for the general election – as much as $18,124 for Senate candidates and $3,937 for House candidates. Candidates for uncontested seats get much less funding.

Once candidates accept Clean Election funding, they cannot take private donations to supplement the public funds.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he used to advise most GOP candidates to apply for Clean Election funding even though many in the party didn’t agree with the law.

“I think the reason people did Clean Election (financing) in the past is it put people at a big disadvantage if you didn’t,” Webster said.

The risk has shifted, now that matching funds won’t be available, he said. “When the Supreme Court changed the rules, it changed the way these decisions are being made.”

This year, Webster’s advice to candidates is more mixed. Candidates with enough personal money to finance a campaign are now more likely to use private money, while incumbents who feel more secure about re-election are the most likely to use public financing, he said.

The state Democratic Party is still encouraging candidates to use Clean Election financing because the party believes in the ideals behind the law, said Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the party.

“There are a lot of candidates discouraged … that a really successful, well-run program was gutted,” she said.

But “we are full supporters of Clean Elections,” she said. “We like the idea of keeping outside influences out of politics, where possible.”

A total of 438 candidates are registered to run for the 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 in the Senate, according to the ethics commission. The Clean Election filing status of candidates can be found at: http://www.mainecampaignfinance.com/Public/

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com