An estimated $9.5 million in taxpayer dollars could be spent to finance the campaigns of candidates participating in Maine’s publicly funded election program – an unprecedented amount since the state’s first-in-the-nation Clean Election’s Act went into effect in 2000.

There will actually be more than $11 million earmarked for the campaigns of three and possibly four candidates for governor, 232 people running for the House, and 59 running for Senate, but the legislative candidates aren’t likely to spend the maximum amounts.

Those numbers are up from the 116 candidates who participated when the fund was first available in 2000 at a cost of around $900,000 to the taxpayers. Today, 77 percent of all candidates running in the general election are running on public money.

“We’re extremely pleased that this percentage of legislators are opting into the program,” said Ann Luther, president of the Maine League of Women Voters, who said the idea of the Clean Elections Act was to stop “big money” from influencing elections in Maine.

“Did we anticipate, let’s say, four candidates for governor? I’m not sure planning went to that level of detail.”

The budget buster is the campaign for governor, which is expected to cost $5.4 million if the last of four candidates – former state Rep. John Michael – qualifies this week. Three others already have. They are Republican Sen. Chandler Woodcock, Pat LaMarche of the Green Party and independent Rep. Barbara Merrill. Gov. John Baldacci is running a privately financed campaign.

Michael handed in his final paperwork one minute after the deadline last Friday, and the elections commission is still trying to determine if he’s eligible. A decision will be made at the end of day on Wednesday.

Even if Michael isn’t in the race, the total spent on gubernatorial candidates is expected to be $4.2 million, since Baldacci’s spending on the campaign likely will trigger the full amount available for his opponents.

Running on empty

There already has been $600,000 spent on the gubernatorial primary, including $200,000 given to LaMarche, who didn’t even have an opponent on the primary ballot. Under the rules, all candidates who qualify get money to spend on the primary whether they have a run-off race or not.

And, in the next fiscal year that starts July 1, 2007, the fund will be completely out of money and in the red by an estimated $370,000.

That’s because the Legislature several years ago “borrowed” $6.7 million from the fund to balance the budget and only recently paid $3.6 million back. The fund is supposed to be built up every year with $2 million in state funds to keep it solvent during election cycles, which are every two years for legislators and every four for the office of governor.

Whether the amount being spent on the governor’s race alone will trigger a backlash from the voters, who originally supported publicly financed campaigns in a 1996 referendum, has yet to be seen and could depend on whether the non-traditional party candidates in the race make a decent showing.

“I guess we are concerned,” said Luther. “The good thing is that so many legislators use it that the support is there to make sure it’s available to future candidates.”

Alison Smith is also a member of the Maine League of Women Voters, who was part of the team that got the referendum passed 10 years ago.

Smith said the fear is “third party candidates are going to kind of ruin it,” if they pull single-digit percentages in the general election for governor – something that won’t be known until after Election Day on Nov. 7.

“I don’t want to see our money go spinning down the drain for no good reason either,” Smith said of the concerns she has heard, but, “the time to evaluate it is after the cycle is over.”

At that point, Smith said her coalition may consider making it tougher for gubernatorial candidates – regardless of party affiliation – to qualify for public funds.

How it works

The way the law works now, candidates who want public funding have to collect a pre-determined number of $5 contributions from registered voters in their district. House candidates have to collect 50 checks; Senate candidates 150; and, gubernatorial candidates 2,500, from the pool of all registered voters in the state. Once qualified, they can accept no outside funding.

All candidates who qualify for clean election funding by April 15, get primary funds regardless of whether they have a run-off race. House candidates with no opposition in the primary get $512 a piece and Senate candidates get $1,927. If they’re in a primary race, House candidates get $1,504 and Senate candidates get $7,746. Candidates for governor get a flat $200,000 each in the primary.

In the general election, the candidate has to have an opponent to receive funds.

In House races a publicly funded candidate gets an initial distribution of $4,362 and then up to $8,724, or two times that amount, in matching funds, if a privately funded opponent spends more than the initial $4,362. In Senate races, the initial funding is $20,082 with matching funds of up to an additional $40,164.

Those amounts are adjusted based on the amounts spent in the previous two election cycles.

Candidates for governor get $400,000 to start and then up to $800,000 more each, depending on what the privately financed candidate spends. This year Gov. Baldacci, as the only privately financed candidate in the race, will set the pace. While legislative candidates aren’t expected to spend all their matching funds, those running for governor likely will.

10-year anniversary

It will be 10 years ago this November that the Clean Election Act was passed by voters 320,755 to 250,185. The ballot question read: “Do you want Maine to adopt new campaign finance laws and give public funding to candidates for state office who agree to spending limits?”

Smith of the League of Women Voters was part of the group that went out and collected signatures to put the question on the ballot. She said people were supportive because they saw the possibility of corruption, particularly at the congressional level.

“Maine wasn’t so bad,” she said, but proponents believed, “Maine could be a model for Congress, and that’s where we really needed it.”

“Legislators were mostly leery of it or hated it,” she said. The unions, which to this day use their political action committees to support candidates, came around, “once they saw what their numbers were” as compared to the “big money in politics,” much of which came from wealthy individuals, she said.

Smith said the opposition didn’t see them coming because they believed the referendum would fall under the weight of the words “public funding” in the ballot question.

“One of the reasons we were able to pass it is our natural opponents never really woke up,” she said. “They assumed we would lose.”

Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, the presumed leader of the Republicans in the House next session, is opposed to the clean elections system for Maine.

“I felt the clean election push was a solution looking for a problem in Maine that actually didn’t exist,” he said. “The notion that big money and special interests were influencing decisions especially at the legislative level was a ridiculous allegation.”

Tardy said he would never criticize those who do use public funds for their campaigns, but would like to find ways to encourage people to go the traditional route.

One way would be to increase the contribution limit – also set under the Clean Elections Act – for privately funded candidates. The current limit is a $250 from a single source for legislative candidates and $500 in the governor’s race.

“We should look at both of those limits,” Tardy said. “We need to find ways to encourage people to go either way.”


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