AUGUSTA — The publicly funded campaign-finance system backed by Maine voters in a November referendum could run out of money during this year’s election because lawmakers have repeatedly raided the fund for other purposes.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of Maine’s ethics commission, told the Legislature’s budget-writing committee Tuesday that lawmakers have taken nearly $12 million from the Maine Clean Elections fund since 2002, including $3.4 million through the fiscal year that ended in June 2015. The Legislature has repaid $5.6 million, but Wayne said the voter-approved program designed to limit big-money influence on legislative and gubernatorial candidates could run into a “cash flow problem” later this year. That’s because more candidates are entering the program after last fall’s referendum, which increased the amount of money that could be available to support campaigns.
If the Maine Clean Elections program runs out of money, it will suffer a “black eye” that could lower confidence and participation among candidates, said Wayne, whose agency oversees the campaign finance system.
The funding issue surfaced during a public hearing on a bill to hasten the transfer of $3 million that the program is scheduled to receive from the state’s General Fund on Jan. 1, 2017.
The request to accelerate the transfer of money prompted critics to say the bill was evidence that the referendum ratified in November failed to live up to its promise to Maine voters.
“The citizens’ initiative process provided these organizations with their chance to significantly rewrite law,” said Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy adviser to Gov. Paul LePage. “This provision was not included. The ink is not yet dry and already they are coming to the well for more.”
PROPONENTS: LEPAGE HAS WITHHELD FUNDING
But supporters of the program said the bill, L.D. 1579, wouldn’t be necessary if lawmakers repaid the money that the Legislature has siphoned from the Clean Elections fund over the years. They also blamed LePage for withholding an additional $1 million that was supposed to go into the program by Monday.
The extra funding was included in the 2015 referendum, which increased the annual allocation to the fund from $2 million to $3 million. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the organization that led the ballot drive, said the LePage administration is defying the will of voters.
Lawmakers said they’d been assured by administration officials that the money would be transferred. David Heidrich, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said in an email Tuesday that the transfer had not taken place yet but would be made.
The governor is a longtime opponent of public campaign financing and has made several moves to reduce funding to the Maine program. It was created by voters in 1996 and provides public campaign funding for qualifying candidates who collect a specific number of small-dollar donations. The program has been undermined by at least two key U.S. Supreme Court decisions and increasing hostility to taxpayer-funded campaigns among some Republicans, including LePage, who has called it “welfare for politicians.”
Attempts to bolster the Maine Clean Elections program, either through increased funding or rule changes, repeatedly 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 large amounts of money to defeat them.
MORE CANDIDATES POISED TO USE ‘CLEAN’ FUNDS
The 2015 referendum was designed to increase participation, in part by providing more funding so that so-called “clean” candidates would have the resources to compete against wealthy opponents or outside interest groups that spend against them.
So far, the promise of more funds and spending power appears to have attracted more legislative candidates. Although complete figures are not yet available, as of Monday, 74 percent of all registered legislative candidates have filed notice of their intention to use Clean Elections to finance their 2016 races.
The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices projects that 291 legislative candidates will use the program this year at a cost of $4.6 million. There were $1.9 million in payments from the fund in 2014, $2.1 million in 2012, $3.3 million in 2010 and $2.9 million in 2008.
The new law also requires lawmakers to analyze and eliminate $6 million in corporate tax breaks to help add funding to the program.
Lawmakers have historically 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 Taxation Committee is required to draft recommendations to meet the voter mandate this session, but has yet to produce a proposal. Additionally, the heated political environment, resistance to the Clean Elections program by some Republicans, a reluctance to evaluate the business tax programs and an election year are all conspiring against the prospect of a compromise.
The opposition to the program repeatedly surfaced during Tuesday’s hearing, echoing the debates that occurred during the campaign leading up to the November 2015 referendum.
Ann Luther, with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, told the committee that the repeated raids on the program created an “opening for political manipulation.” If the fund had not been depleted by lawmakers, she said, the bill wouldn’t be necessary.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: