December 2, 2012

Political fundraising: 'Enough is enough'

The Citizens United ruling is bypassing citizens. Let's take on the PACs and keep Maine elections clean.

By SEVERIN BELIVEAU

The election is finally over. The mail arrives with three more fundraising solicitations for Maine political action committees (aka PACs) -- the 78th and 79th solicitations. Our law office has received contribution requests from 48 separate committees (which are only a fraction of the 158 total registered PACs). Apparently holding an election does not interrupt the fundraising for a minute.

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Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

I have been around politics in Maine and the nation for almost half a century. I have chaired the Maine Democratic Party, been listed on Nixon's enemies list, served in both branches of the Legislature, run for governor, and entertained presidents at our home. I am not unfamiliar with the practice of raising political money.

But this year, even I have to say, "Enough is enough." The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United unleashed the floodgates: More than $2 billion was spent in this year's presidential election. We are all familiar now with the campaign for Maine's open U.S. Senate seat, where more than $11 million was spent, much of it by out-of-state PACs.

What is new is the extent to which these practices are now infecting races for the Maine Legislature. Maine was once a state where a legislator was elected after knocking on hundreds of doors and spending a few hundred bucks putting up yard signs. This year, however, more than $3.5 million was spent by and for Maine candidates. The previous record, set in 2010, was $1.5 million.

Some races were notorious. Almost a half-million dollars was spent on a single state Senate race in the Bangor area alone. What's more, both candidates were Clean Election candidates who received $18,124 apiece in taxpayer funds to run their general election campaigns. The remaining amount, at least $418,000 or 92 percent of the total spent in that race, came from PACs from outside that Senate district. On top of this, the Republican candidate in that race was listed as a principal officer of a PAC that spent more than $161,000 to oppose her opponent!

This is a far cry from what Maine voters expected when they passed the first Clean Election ballot initiative in the country in 1996.

For a while, the Clean Election law worked. Most candidates, both Democratic and Republican, used public financing. This meant they could not accept donations from outside sources. The availability of public funds enabled many talented people to run for office who would not otherwise have been able to afford it.

But now the system is fraying. The Citizens United decision has made it easier to raise, attract, and spend private money. The governor and Maine Legislature reduced Clean Election funding this year by eliminating "matching funds," which increased candidate funding when he or she faced a large disparity in spending. As a result of these changes, only 56 percent of legislative candidates participated in Clean Election funding in 2012, down from a peak of 81 percent participation in 2008.

Nowhere is the fraying more evident than in the expanding role of privately funded PACs created and sustained by candidates who are themselves Clean Election-funded. Let me state this again for emphasis. Did you, as a Maine voter, understand this? Candidates for the Maine Legislature, who are themselves funded by taxpayers under the Maine Clean Election Act set up, on the side, privately funded PACs to help other legislators.

In 2010, 295 candidates for Maine's Legislature ran "clean" and received more than $3 million in taxpayer funds to run for office. These same candidates indirectly benefited from another $1.5 million in "independent expenditures" spent by PACs on their behalf. This year, 239 "clean" candidates received more than $1.5 million in taxpayer funding, and another $3.5 million in independent expenditures by PACs.

Over my career, I have raised a fair amount of money for political candidates. Within limits, private fundraising is a healthy thing. It gets candidates out to meet with voters and hear their concerns. But there is a tipping point beyond which private fundraising becomes counterproductive. The tipping point is reached when political parties set up boiler rooms with telephones for candidates to make calls to strangers asking for donations. The tipping point is reached when money from outside Maine, from people who may have never visited here, and certainly never met any candidates, overruns money raised from local sources.

As the Portland Press Herald put it in a late October editorial, "Now we have a lot of speech, but not much of it is free." I remember the editorial well. On the day I was reading it, I received another three invitations to contribute to political action committees.

As a longtime political insider, I am an unlikely advocate for increased Clean Election funding and tighter restrictions on private money in politics. But I don't want Maine politics to go the way of Washington. I don't want money and partisanship to swamp our State House. Our tradition of independent citizen legislators must continue.

But if it is to continue, we need to strengthen our Clean Election laws for the future. Here's a first step: Outlaw the ability of publicly funded candidates to create privately funded political action committees. I am urging the leadership of both political parties in the Legislature to take this essential step. Help Maine voters to be able to keep believing in the integrity of our political system.

Severin Beliveau is an Augusta attorney and a founding partner of Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau and Pachios, LLP. He is a former state legislator, gubernatorial candidate and Maine Democratic Party chair.

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