Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively removed the cap on donations to individual candidates in an election cycle will likely prompt Maine to address its own contribution limits.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of Maine’s ethics commission, said Thursday that his staff is reviewing the decision closely and may draft legislation for 2015 that would conform Maine law with the federal ruling.

The 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission retained the $5,200 cap on individual donations to specific candidates, but struck down the aggregate limit of $123,200 that now exists in federal law.

That means individual donors with deep pockets no longer have restrictions on how much money they give to all candidates, candidate committees or political action committees. The change could expand those donors’ influence on candidates’ positions and the actions of elected officials.

Maine law sets an aggregate cap of $25,000 for donations to state candidates and committees. Wayne said that law is probably unconstitutional now because of Wednesday’s ruling.

If Maine does not take legislative steps to come into compliance with federal law, Wayne said, a state lawsuit will be likely, given the precedent set by the ruling.

In the meantime, donors who approach the $25,000 limit likely can keep donating without worrying about violating state law.

Wayne said he was unaware of any individual donor reaching the $25,000 aggregate limit over the past 11 years. Most big spenders typically funnel their money to party committees and political action committees, for which there are no donor limits.

B.J. McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said he’s not as concerned about Mainers contributing unlimited amounts of money as he is about out-of-state donors trying to influence elections in Maine. In some cases, that already has happened.

During the 2012 elections, many state House and Senate races drew big spending from political action committees, which are not aligned with candidates but often exist to support either Republicans or Democrats.

“The jury is still out on its impact here in Maine,” McCollister said of the Supreme Court’s ruling. “One thing it certainly does mean is, the court has sided with wealthy donors.”

For all races in 2014, Maine’s limit on the amount individuals can give to a single candidate in primary and general elections is intact. Those limits are:

n $1,500 per election for gubernatorial candidates; a party candidate can receive $3,000 because primary elections and general elections occur in the same year – even if the candidate has no primary. Donations to unenrolled candidates cannot exceed $1,500.

n $375 per election for legislative candidates; party candidates have a $750 maximum.

n $750 for municipal candidates in cities and towns with populations of 15,000 or more.

n Unlimited donations to candidates in cities and towns of less than 15,000 people.

McCollister said the Supreme Court ruling is equally bad or good for both major parties, depending on individual perspective. “But it’s really bad for voters,” he said. “Their voices are drowned out.”

There still could be some benefits, McCollister said, because more and more people will begin to scrutinize campaign financing. He said the ruling makes the “clean election” system all the more important because its publicly funded candidates are not allowed to raise outside money.

Maine political leaders had a mixed reaction to the ruling.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King proposed legislation Wednesday, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, that would require disclosure of campaign contributions within 48 hours, rather than quarterly, as required now.

“The decision will open the floodgates and make it even more difficult to track who’s funding elections,” King said in a prepared statement. “This bill will modernize antiquated disclosure requirements to reflect the realities of today’s political campaigns, helping to combat the impact of unchecked money in our political system.”

Brent Littlefield, campaign adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, said he hasn’t talked to LePage about the ruling and doesn’t expect to.

“This deals with federal races – not state races,” Littlefield said in an email.

Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, said the decision “makes it that much more likely the two political parties become even more beholden to the unlimited dollars from the national special interests.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor, said the decision further erodes campaign finance laws that are meant to protect the democratic process.

“Today’s decision marks yet another assault on the average American’s ability to have their fair say in the democratic process,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “Campaign finance laws were set up to ensure that wealthy special-interest groups couldn’t trample the will of the people, yet in the wake of Citizens United and today’s ruling in McCutcheon, that is exactly what will happen.”

Last month, a political action committee representing the steelworkers union contributed $300,000 to the Maine Democratic Party – an unusually large donation so early in the election cycle, and one that is likely to benefit Michaud’s campaign.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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