Politics

November 18, 2013

State House Notebook: Outside groups spending big on Maine elections

The state's 2012 legislative election was a record year for spending by outside groups, topping $3.7 million.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It’s often said that the public doesn’t pay a lot of attention to state legislatures or the individuals trying to get elected to them. That’s also historically been true of interest groups, corporations and wealthy individuals attempting to shape public policy.

In the past, their attention and money have been directed to congressional and presidential elections.

But the focus is changing – in a big way.

Last week, The Center for Public Integrity published a lengthy report about the prevalence of spending by outside groups in gubernatorial and legislative contests. The report offered broad national context for what Mainers are already experiencing and reading about in the media: There’s an unprecedented amount of money spent by a relatively select group of interest groups and corporations to influence elections with mailers and television, radio and Web advertisements.

The 2012 Maine legislative election was a record year for spending by outside groups, topping $3.7 million. The sum not only dwarfed the previous record of $1.5 million spent in 2010, but equals the cost of stipends for 147.5 of the 186 lawmakers in the Maine Legislature. Or, to look at it another way, it was just over $5.25 for every one of the approximately 700,000 Mainers who cast a ballot in 2012.

Spending was even more impressive in New Hampshire, where groups spent $24 for each of the 752,000 registered voters in last year’s New Hampshire gubernatorial election.

According to the analysis by The Center for Public Integrity, the spending in Maine was part of at least $209 million spent in 38 states. The report stopped at 38 because 12 states have campaign disclosure laws that are so weak that it’s impossible to tell who is spending how much to influence an election, and potentially shape state laws.

Last year, Denise Roth Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, told the Portland Press Herald that national groups see spending on state races as low risk, high gain. If a group can turn a few seats and gain control of the legislature, it can have a say in the decision making, she said. The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist confirmed that theory to The Center for Public Integrity.

“Right now in Washington, D.C., as long as you have a divided government, there’s only so much you can do,” Norquist said. “More of the important decisions – the whole conversation of tort reform to tax policy to spending issues – are happening at the state level. So we’ve been more interested in focusing there.”

The focus seems unlikely to change in 2014.

With the legislative and gubernatorial election approaching – not to mention national midterm elections – that means Mainers should brace for what could be another record year of spending.

And, contrary to the Democratic narrative of the 2010 elections, it won’t be just Republicans and corporations benefiting from the recent loosening of campaign finance laws and the increased political activity of nonprofit groups. Progressive groups may have gotten their clocks cleaned in 2010, the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which removed campaign spending caps on corporations and unions previously imposed by 24 states. However, backed by unions and wealthy liberal donors, Democrats have quickly recovered, and in states like Maine, have won the spending advantage.

Mainers witnessed this in 2012, when national labor unions and aligned interests spent big dollars on legislative contests. Such groups spent big during a special election for a state Senate seat held in August, accounting for more than 60 percent of the $156,000 spent to lift state Sen. Eloise Vitelli to victory.

Among the most prolific political action committees supporting Democrats the last two cycles is The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, a group largely bankrolled by unions and hedge fund manager and philanthropist S. Donald Sussman. Sussman, who spent more than $600,000 in 2012, is mentioned in the Public Integrity report (So are some of the wealthy donors who have given to Public Integrity.).

Sussman is the majority owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and other MaineToday Media newspapers.

The Public Integrity report highlighted the practical effect of the outside spending: Interest groups and corporations have less incentive to give directly to candidates when they can spend unlimited amounts through political action committees and nonprofits (which have the added benefit of hiding donors).

MORAL SUPPORT, MONEY SUPPORT?

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado made his way into Maine newspapers for tweeting that Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud had somehow eluded his “gaydar.”

But it’s Polis who may have eluded whatever internal trigger that people have to determine wealth (doughdar?).

Money? Polis has plenty of it, according to annual financial disclosures filed by members of Congress. Polis, serving his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, has a net worth of $68.1 million, according to a tally of his bank accounts, investments and real estate holdings. Roll Call ranked him as the seventh wealthiest member of Congress this year.

Polis, who is also gay, is also heavily involved in helping Democrats get elected, particularly in his home state, where he and three other well-heeled donors have pumped significant money to turn the swing state blue, according to the aforementioned report by Public Integrity. Another big spender in Colorado? Technology entrepreneur Tim Gill and founder of the Gill Foundation, a group supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender causes, including the passage of marriage equality laws. (The group spent money to help pass the 2012 Maine marriage equality law).

That Colorado network of donors may provide cash assistance for Michaud’s 2014 gubernatorial bid. After all, Matt McTighe, Michaud’s campaign manager, has a connection to the Gill Foundation, briefly serving as the Gill Action marriage project director this year.

TACKLING TAX BREAKS

It was clear from the get-go that the legislative committee charged with combing through tax breaks and economic development incentives worth more than $1 billion a year had a tough road. The panel needs to eliminate or change $40 million in tax breaks to keep the state’s two-year budget balanced.

Not only is the committee battling lobbying interests that have previously stymied similar exercises; there were early signals that Republican leaders are reluctant participants. The blogging arm of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the conservative advocacy group, dubbed the panel “the tax hike task force.”

On Friday, Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, said in a prepared statement that he won’t support the panel’s recommendations if they increase Maine’s tax burden.

“There were parts of the budget that Republicans disagreed with, and this is one of those parts,” Fredette said. “Now that we don’t have the prospect of a government shutdown staring us in the face, we can take the time to find better solutions to Maine’s fiscal problems.”

As noted by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, state lawmakers have been adding tax breaks for businesses for 50 years. However, the Legislature has never performed a detailed an analysis to see if those tax breaks have yielded the intended economic development impact.

APPEALS MEETING

The Legislative Council will meet Thursday with lawmakers appealing the committee’s decision in October to kill a bunch of bills proposed for the next session. There will likely be a number of appeals, including a human trafficking bill proposed by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. Volk’s bill has been the subject of much saber rattling that may have more to do with electoral politics than any real policy disagreement (Nobody has actually seen the bill, only the title).

Still, given Democratic leaders’ noticeable backtracking since denying the bill’s admittance last month, it’s likely it will get the nod on Thursday.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

 

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