YARMOUTH — I used to begin my talks to civic groups with a statement of faith in Maine politics: Having worked for Congress for many years, I was delighted that Augusta was not Washington.

Inside the Beltway, money drowns out the public’s voice. Politicians are inevitably swayed by the campaign contributions that they spend every day raising. While the Supreme Court says that without a quid pro quo, this is not “corruption,” I say that the bubble they live in mars their vision and common sense.

In Augusta, most legislators run as Clean Election candidates, which, I told listeners, means no begging for money from special interests. Not anymore. The other day, I saw the beginning of the end. I’m sure it’s happened before, but I was too naive to notice.

The eye-opener was a simple bill, sought by Maine credit unions and banks that have been harassed by “patent trolls” demanding settlements on dubious claims of patent infringement, often involving ATMs. The Judiciary Committee reported it favorably.

Then came trouble. Seeing an opening, the pharmaceutical industry, the nation’s most profitable industry and largest campaign donor, came forward with an amendment. Give us an exemption. Let us file frivolous patent claims without fear of being sued under this bill.

Why, you ask, did they need an exemption? Committee members said no explanation was given, and there is no testimony in the committee file on the subject. Indeed, if you look at the amendment, you’d have to be a lawyer to figure out whom it helps.

In the House, the amendment was easily defeated. Then came consideration in the Senate.

In the Legislature, the only number that matters is 18 – the majority vote in the Senate. As a House member, it is easy to forget this, since each chamber works separately, except on committees.

So imagine our surprise when the Senate, without a roll call to hold it accountable, adopted the pharmaceutical exemption, and insisted that its amended version of the bill prevail.

Why? I can only speculate, and it ain’t pretty.

In the last few elections, state Senate races in Maine and elsewhere have become national battlegrounds fueled by powerful special interests. Money is pouring into these races at an unprecedented rate.

As a Clean Election candidate, a Senate nominee gets about $29,000 to run a contested campaign. As a candidate for the House, I will get about $5,000.

Both figures are plenty of money for printing signs and fliers for candidates to give constituents as we “do doors.” In House races, radio and TV advertising is virtually non-existent. Thank goodness.

In a privately funded race, the candidate may raise as much money as he or she can, although there were caps on individual donors until the U.S. Supreme Court found that limit objectionable recently.

However, the really big bucks come from money not directly contributed to candidates but to political action committees. Industries and individuals with their own agenda have been only too happy to kick in tens of thousands of dollars a pop to win a few close races.

Wisely, they’ve taken aim at state Senate races, where one vote can make the difference. In 2012, outside donations exceeded $100,000 in four Maine Senate races. That’s a lot of junk mail and a lot of influence.

Does the outcome on the patent bill matter to the average Mainer? Pharmaceutical companies know that a patent’s monopoly can be a gold mine, and they will use legislation, threats and litigation (frivolous or not) to extend their reach.

Once a generic version of a medication is on the market, their unchecked profits disappear. With patents, consumers pay more – much more. One representative stated on the floor that the cost of her daughter’s prescription suddenly went from a few dollars to hundreds when a lawsuit blocked the generic version.

In the House, when the Christmas tree-laden bill returned to our chamber, some of us wanted to send it to a House-Senate conference, hoping that a compromise could be reached. Alas, every member had received reams of emails from their local credit unions, urging acceptance of the tainted bill. They and their representatives feared that if we insisted on jettisoning the pharmaceutical exemption, the bill would die.

I don’t blame representatives for going along. They had to choose between constituent interests: neighborhood credit unions versus the universe of pharmaceutical customers. The former arguably is a more immediate threat to their communities than the latter.

I blame the Senate and a system that allows their votes to be so swayed by money. Only a Clean Election system that is universally applied and excludes thinly veiled PAC donations will stop this corrosive power in our Legislature.

— Special to the Press Herald