AUGUSTA — No one at a legislative hearing Monday opposed a bill that would strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act, which was weakened last year.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t powerful opposition. Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman has called the law “welfare for politicians.”

L.D. 1309, sponsored by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, would increase the maximum amounts available to candidates who run taxpayer-funded legislative and gubernatorial campaigns.

It would increase the maximum from $4,923 to $16,500 for candidates for contested House seats, from $21,455 to $65,000 for Senate candidates, and from $1.2 million to $3.2 million for gubernatorial candidates.

Candidates would qualify for the maximum amounts in steps corresponding to the number of $5 contributions they could secure from the public during a campaign.

The bill, championed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, is aimed at bolstering the Clean Election Act in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that weakened it and 2012 state elections that were dominated by independent expenditures.

In December, the group noted that in November’s elections, outside groups spent more than candidates did, for the first time ever in Maine.

Youngblood said that after he first ran as a Clean Election candidate, in 2000, he was “hooked.”

“I was always comfortable talking to lobbyists because I knew that no matter how I voted, I did not need their contributions should I elect to run for office again,” he said.

But in 2011, the act’s provision to give more money to Clean Election candidates based on private money spent for their opponents was struck down as unconstitutional in federal court.

That was a response to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a similar provision in Arizona, on the grounds that it inhibits the constitutional right to free speech.

LePage and the Legislature removed the matching funds from the Clean Election Act last year.

Emily Shaw, testifying Monday for the League of Women Voters in Maine, said the elimination of matching funds narrowed the range of options for voters to “determine the role of big money in politics.”

A board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also endorsed the bill.

The state’s ethics commission called the elimination of matching funds “a significant change to the program,” saying that in the four elections before the change, 40 percent to 50 percent of Clean Election candidates for the Legislature received matching funds.

Participation in the program fell off in 2012 after matching funds were eliminated. In the four previous state elections, 77 percent to 81 percent of legislative candidates ran as Clean Election candidates. In 2012, just 63 percent used public funding.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, which administers the Clean Election Act, called Youngblood’s bill “a sensible way to address the issue” created by the court decisions.

Even though 70 percent of lawmakers in the current Legislature ran as Clean Election candidates, some prominent Republicans, including LePage, oppose the principle of publicly funded campaigns.

In January, Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that the governor wouldn’t support increasing public funding for elections, calling it “welfare for politicians.”

On Monday, she stuck to that stance.

“Generally speaking, he’s not going to support that,” she said of Youngblood’s bill. “The sound bite still stands.” 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme