AUGUSTA — A campaign designed to strengthen Maine’s election laws while providing more funding for publicly financed candidates also requires state lawmakers to analyze and eliminate $6 million in corporate tax breaks.

The little-discussed provision, tucked within the sweeping campaign finance proposal that voters will consider in November, is vital to paying for the election law overhaul. But it will pose a challenge for the Legislature.

Lawmakers have struggled to evaluate the effectiveness of the roughly $1 billion that the state spends on tax breaks and economic development programs. Past efforts have stalled amid lobbying pressure from affected interest groups, inadequate reviews of the programs and a political climate that deters lawmakers from taking any perceived anti-business stances.

The tax break review included in Question 1 is designed to increase funding for the Maine Clean Election program, which provides public campaign funding for qualifying candidates who collect a specific number of small-dollar donations. The $2 million program, which the referendum would increase to $3 million, has been undermined by at least two key U.S. Supreme Court decisions and increasing hostility to taxpayer-funded campaigns among some Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage.

Attempts to bolster the Maine Clean Election program, either through increased funding or rule changes, also have faltered in the Legislature despite its former popularity among lawmakers in both parties. In 2006 and 2008, 81 percent of legislative candidates participated in the program. In 2014, only 53 percent participated, a drop that illustrates a growing ideological divide over public campaign financing and the increasing vulnerability of taxpayer-funded candidates to groups that can spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat them.

NO OPPOSITION, BUT SOME CONCERNS

The lack of success in the Legislature prompted Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and a new coalition, Mainers for Accountable Elections, to try to force changes at the ballot box. The changes include increased funding for candidates who qualify for the Maine Clean Election program, increasing penalties for violating disclosure laws, requiring organizations to disclose their top three donors on political ads, and requiring individuals and companies to disclose contributions to transition committees for newly elected governors.

The groups, backed by several progressive organizations, have received nearly $620,000 in combined donations, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. A ceremonial campaign kickoff is scheduled at the State House on Tuesday.

To date, the campaign has not generated any organized opposition. However, the plan to fund the overhaul of the program has some in the business community concerned.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said his organization isn’t opposing the ballot campaign. However, he said, the provision requiring lawmakers to eliminate business tax breaks could force the Legislature to make hasty decisions that could hurt efforts to attract or retain businesses.

“We’re not trying to defend incentives that don’t work or that aren’t accountable,” Connors said. “But yet there’s a real misconception – and you’ve seen the message build in the last few years – that we have a rich incentive program in the state. The truth is that ours is not rich and it’s really, in my opinion, very accountable.”

He added, “(Our programs) have always been reasonable and responsible, but there’s this drumbeat that has a certain momentum.”

The momentum to evaluate Maine’s tax incentive programs has not yielded many changes. A 2012 analysis by the Pew Center on the States listed Maine among the 25 states, plus the District of Columbia, that were “not meeting any of the criteria for scope or quality of evaluation” of tax incentive programs. In 2013, lawmakers failed to find $40 million in revenue to maintain a balanced budget by evaluating tax breaks, eventually forcing lawmakers to tap the state’s emergency fund and avoid a corresponding cut to municipal aid.

EVALUATING INCENTIVE PROGRAMS

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has initiated a review of over 212 pages’ worth of tax revenues that the state either pays out or doesn’t collect in connection with the dozens of credits, exemptions or reimbursements written into the state tax code. The review has been a slog for the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight, or OPEGA. It reported July 17 that the Department of Economic and Community Development told auditors that the department has neither the time nor the resources to oversee the programs that it administers.

Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Mainers for Accountable Elections, said the funding provision was supported by small-business owners within the coalition. She acknowledged previous failures to evaluate tax incentive programs. However, she said, the referendum, if successful, will provide state lawmakers the incentive to complete a review.

“If this is passed by the people of Maine, then it’s imperative for elected officials to fulfill voters’ wishes,” she said.

If it passes, the referendum will become the first statewide campaign finance law overhaul enacted in the country since the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The ruling, which lifted limits on campaign spending by third-party groups and political action committees, is widely considered to have prompted the record election spending experienced nationally and in Maine.