WINDHAM — Maine’s citizens are being left in the dark by a citizen initiative process that has been hijacked by well-moneyed special interests. Our citizens have lost their voice.

Maine’s citizen initiative – void of public hearings – in theory replaces critical input with a campaign where proponents and opponents make their cases. Of course, that’s if both sides get the microphone.

When legislators and citizens present testimony in one of Maine’s joint standing committees, you hear from them once regarding a bill. Whether they have $5 or $5 billion in the bank, it does not determine the frequency by which their voices are heard by our legislators.

Today, our now special interest initiative process does not afford voters the opportunity to receive well-rounded discussions where proponents, opponents, and even those not for or against measures can speak. While legislators take receiving a variety of viewpoints for granted, Maine’s citizens are subject to undue influence leaving them uniformed before making decisions impacting lives.

In 1996, voters passed the Maine Clean Election Act with the intent to curb the impact of special interest money in elections and on candidates. Of course, problems still exist because of outside spending that is protected under the First Amendment. Spending money is protected speech. Communicating ideas to wide audiences requires significant expenditures. Whether it be direct mail, paid canvassers or television, radio and the internet, effective voter education costs.

Today, Maine’s people acknowledge that our citizen initiative process has become dominated by big-money special interests. Many solutions have been offered, but few are obstacles for these groups and some politically unsupportable for even the most high-minded legislators. Considering the significantly disproportionate spending between competing interests and when money has become speech, campaign finance is where Maine must address these issues.

As mentioned, the First Amendment protects political spending by equating it to speech. By giving well-organized, Maine-based nonprofits and citizen groups the ability to qualify for public financing, we can bring opportunity for different viewpoints to be heard in the citizen initiative process.

L.D. 1561, An Act To Enact the Maine Citizens’ Initiatives Clean Election Act, does just that. By allowing advocates to collect qualifying contributions showing public support for or against ballot measures, they could become eligible for up to $1 million of public funding. This would in turn grant Maine’s people a more robust conversation surrounding a ballot measure.

Limits and safeguards have been put in place to make this funding option attractive for small, grass-roots, Maine-based campaigns and less desirable for well-moneyed, out-of-state efforts.

Using this voluntary funding option, proponents are limited to spending $100,000 on a petition drive effort.

Eighty percent of the funding would come from individual Maine contributors limited to $750 apiece. This is a high bar, considering petition drives require the collection of over 60,000 signatures. Often much more is spent. Regardless, no public funding would be spent on these efforts.

Publicly funded ballot question committees would be able to collect and use seed money for initial expenses and to collect qualifying contributions as candidates do today. Seed money would be subject to the same spending and contribution limits as petition drives.

Public funding would not be an option for a proponent group who wishes to support a ballot measure initiated by a different ballot question committee. At the heart of this proposal is a desire to have a more robust conversation surrounding the pros and cons of an initiative, not buttress support for a measure another group initiated.

Participants will engage in mission adherence audits assuring compliance with stated goals. Mainers who gave qualifying contributions should expect that campaigns are meeting backer expectations.

Expenditures made by political action or traditional ballot question committees cannot be made in cooperation with publicly funded ballot question committees. Publicly funded ballot question committees would also be prohibited from donating resources, including staff time, to organizations, PACs or other ballot question committees trying to influence the same ballot question.

For publicly funded ballot question committees, the initial distribution would be $600,000 after collecting 2,500 $5 contributions from individual voters. Eight additional $50,000 supplemental distributions, each based on collecting 240 contributions, would be available. This could result in $1 million after amassing 4,420 $5 checks showing public support. Not an easy task.

What I’m offering is an opportunity for Mainers to innovate, have a more informed electorate, and return the citizen initiative where it belongs, with the citizens. Let’s get it done.

— Special to the Press Herald