AUGUSTA — Advocates for Maine’s public campaign finance system called on legislators Wednesday to repay the $1.7 million that they diverted from the Maine Clean Elections Act fund last year to pay for other programs.

The State House rally by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections attracted about 50 people and provided another example of how Maine’s first-in-the-nation taxpayer-funded campaign system has become increasingly ensnared in partisan politics.

About 70 percent of the Republicans and Democrats running in November’s legislative election plan to run as publicly funded candidates. Maine voters approved increased funding for the program in a referendum last year, after a successful initiative campaign by the Maine Citizens group.

But so far, state legislators have not agreed on a new source of money to add another $1 million to the program, which would increase the fund to $3 million. Lawmakers also have been unable to agree on a bill to curb lawmakers’ practice of raiding the Clean Elections fund.

In February, Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said that those raids, combined with increased use of the program by candidates, could completely deplete the Clean Elections fund before the November election. Wayne initially requested an accelerated transfer of $3 million that the fund is scheduled to receive in 2017, but he later said $500,000 could probably ensure that the fund doesn’t dry up this year.

Lawmakers have taken $12 million from the fund since 2002 and repaid $5.6 million.

Those raids have been criticized by advocates for the program, who expressed frustration at Wednesday’s news conference that lawmakers have been unwilling to provide bridge funding for the program. A bridge funding bill awaits votes in the House and Senate, but Republicans have been reluctant to support it. Clean Elections funding was not part of an $18 million bipartisan spending bill that received initial approval by the House and Senate on Tuesday.

Andrew Bossie, director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said it was time to end the “cycle of mismanagement” of the Clean Elections fund and repay the money taken from the program last year. He said it was insult to Maine voters for lawmakers to neglect the program while they are using taxpayer dollars to finance their election campaigns.

“It is complete and utter hypocrisy to run as a Clean Elections candidate and then turn around and vote against funding for the program,” Bossie said.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the House majority leader, said Democratic lawmakers had hoped to include Clean Elections funding in the bipartisan spending bill, but the idea got a frosty reception from Republicans.

According to the Maine ethics commission, 201 House candidates and 61 Senate candidates have applied for funds in the Clean Elections program. That includes 128 Democratic and 69 Republican candidates for the House, and 33 Democratic and 23 Republican candidates for the Senate.

Despite their participation, Republicans have taken an increasingly dim view of the program. They point to the increased spending by outside groups in legislative elections. And they dislike the fact that Clean Elections candidates also use political action committees to accept donations from individuals and organizations.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, is among the program’s most vocal critics. Brakey, who has run a traditionally financed campaign, is leading an effort to get a plank supporting repeal of the program into the Maine Republican Party platform. If successful, that would have no practical effect on the program, but it could discourage Republicans from using it.

“At a time when we’re struggling to find funding for programs that support our elderly and people with disabilities, I don’t see how we can support funding for more campaign signs and robocalls,” Brakey said.

He said the program had failed to produce true reforms or reduce the influence of major donors in politics.

Altering the Maine Republican Party platform requires the signature of 10 delegates. Brakey said he had 20 delegates, including Gov. Paul LePage, who has called the program “welfare for politicians.”

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

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Twitter: @stevemistler