March 14, 2010

Gubernatorial race putting the spotlight on public financing

Is it a waste of taxpayer money or a way to keep special interests in check?

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The pros and cons of public versus private campaign financing are emerging as a divisive issue in the race for governor.

Bill Clinton
click image to enlarge

In a fundraising e-mail for Maine Senate President and gubernatorial candidate Elizabeth Mitchell, former President Bill Clinton wrote, “The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United vs. FEC will flood our politics with corporate money, making it all the more important to have governors like Libby who get elected without it.”

The Associated Press

It has split Democratic candidates and pits a single Republican against the rest of the GOP field.

Opponents of public campaign financing argue that there are more important things on which to spend state money. Proponents argue that it reduces the influence of well-heeled special interests.

Concerns about undue influence on elections have increased nationally since a Jan. 21 Supreme Court ruling removed limits on corporate contributions in federal elections.

Just last week, former President Bill Clinton sent out a fundraising appeal on behalf of Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, a Clean Election candidate, that mentioned the ruling.

"The Supreme Court's recent decision in Citizens United vs. FEC will flood our politics with corporate money, making it all the more important to have governors like Libby who get elected without it," the e-mail said.

States are preparing for an influx of new money into political campaigns because of the ruling -- some are preparing new legislation to try to control it.

The question was debated at a recent forum in Rockport in which 12 of the 24 gubernatorial candidates participated.

Democrat John Richardson -- who hopes to qualify for Clean Election money -- urged those in attendance to support a publicly funded candidate.

"You'll have a governor who doesn't have to kowtow to lobbyists," he said.

On the other side, Republican Matt Jacobson countered that he doesn't think politicians should be spending public money on campaigning when funding for social services is being cut.

"In that environment, to take money to buy lawn signs and bumper stickers, I'm offended," Jacobson said.

Fellow Republican Les Otten was also critical.

"I find the words Clean Election to be an oxymoron," he said.

Voters approved a citizen initiative in 1996 to create the Clean Election system, which was billed as a way to free candidates from the influence of special interests while still giving them enough money to run credible campaigns. More than 80 percent of those running for the Maine Legislature now use public money.

In the gubernatorial race, those who want public funds must collect 3,250 qualifying contributions of $5 each. They also must raise at least $40,000 in seed money to prove they are viable, but can raise as much as $200,000 early in their campaigns.

If they meet the requirements, they become eligible for an initial $400,000 disbursement, which can reach $600,000 if privately funded opponents spend that amount during the primary.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, is the only one of seven Republican candidates participating in the program.

Last week, he announced that he was the first candidate to complete the process and was awaiting final approval from the ethics commission.

The deadline is April 1.

Mills said it's a plus, not a minus, to be the only Republican using public money.

"It's very much to my advantage," he said. "The polling reflects three of four voters want us to detach ourselves from special interest money."

Mills said qualifying has not been easy, but now that he's completed the process, he can focus on campaigning and finishing out his term in the Senate.

"For five months, we've been waking up in the middle of the night worrying about where the next $5 check comes from," he said. "It becomes a ruling obsession for the time you're in it."

Democrats Patrick McGowan, Mitchell and Richardson hope to qualify for public money, while Steve Rowe, Rosa Scarcelli, Peter Truman and Donna Dion are all privately financed.

Scarcelli, in her first bid for public office, said she finds it interesting that at least some of those participating in the Clean Election system have also had separate political action committees that took money from special interests.

(Continued on page 2)

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