Legislators Tuesday weighed in on proposed changes to the Clean Elections law, arguing for everything from changing the nomenclature so publicly funded candidates are not referred to as “clean” to giving those who don’t want outside money spent on their behalf a chance to turn it down.

The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices provided the forum, looking for feedback on changes its staff is proposing, but the floor was open for other ideas.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Cumberland County, who ran a privately financed campaign, called for more scrutiny of how Clean Elections funding is spent.

“It’s really important to the public when they’re paying over $7 million,” Diamond said, to make sure that public funds are spent appropriately for those running at the taxpayer’s expense.

“You’re spending $20,000-plus to run a Senate campaign – $20,000 is more than some people make,” he said.

This past election, 77 percent of the legislative candidates and four candidates running for governor ran on public funds. Candidates who want public funding have to collect a pre-determined number of $5 contributions from registered voters in their district, and once they qualify can accept no outside funding. Senate candidates get an initial disbursement of $20,000 for their campaigns; House candidates get $4,362; and candidates for governor get $400,000.

But they can get twice that amount in matching funds if they are outspent by their privately funded opponents – something that happened in the governor’s race. The governor’s race alone, including the primary, cost taxpayers $3.5 million.

Diamond said legislative candidates should not be allowed to hold their meetings in restaurants, where they charge meals as a campaign expense. And, he against spending state money to maintain people’s cars.

“A lot of candidates are writing $500 checks to themselves for gas and maintenance. The vehicle’s not used solely for campaigning,” he said, and “the state shouldn’t pay for maintenance.”

Diamond also said candidates should be allowed to stop fliers or ads being run on their behalf by outside groups, because it often triggers matching funds for their opponents and is sometimes used as a ploy to do just that.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Somerset County, who ran as a Clean Elections candidate in the Republican primary for governor, focused on proposals the commission was making to tighten the rules for gubernatorial candidates.

Those changes include making it tougher for gubernatorial candidates to qualify for public funding by raising the number of $5 contributions they need from 2,500 to 3,000, and requiring that at least 50 contributions come from each of the state’s 16 counties. There also is a recommendation that the window during which outside expenditures for candidates trigger matching funds for their Clean Elections opponents be expanded from 21 days to 60.

Mills said raising the number of $5 checks needed would add to what already is a bureaucratic “nightmare.” He said candidates or their campaign staff have to drive all over the state to get town clerks in up to 490 municipalities to validate the money came from a registered voter and it costs the system more money than it raises.

He also argued there should be matching funds for privately financed candidates when excessive outside money is spent on their Clean Election’s opponents.

Mills said the dwindling number of privately financed candidates in the state, who are usually running against a publicly funded opponent, are targeted by party political action committees from both sides.

“If you give the privately financed candidate the benefit of the (matching fund) shield, it would prevent the PACs from burying the candidate,” he said.

Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, spoke about limiting the amount Clean Elections candidates running for leadership positions can collect for their so-called leadership PACs. Valentino is going to introduce legislation in the upcoming session that would allow those running for leadership to get Clean Elections funding for their campaigns. They would be limited, however, on how much they could spend, starting at $20,000 for speaker of the house and $15,000 for senate president.

Valentino also would like to see legislative terms increased from two years to four. Her bill would limit legislators to four consecutive, four-year terms in the House or Senate and 32 years total in the Legislature.

“The No. 1 thing to do to affect undue influence is to go to four-year terms,” Valentino said, so legislators are not constantly running for office. “People would get three years of consecutive work out of their representatives where they’re only getting one year now.”

Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, who ran a privately financed campaign, said he wants the language around Clean Elections campaigns changed so those running on public funds aren’t always referred to as the “clean” candidates.

“My opponent was ‘clean,’ therefore what must I be?” he asked. “The nomenclature suggests that if you’re not ‘clean” you must be dirty.”

The ethics commission will meet again on Jan 19 to vote on changes to the Clean Elections law.

It also set up a meeting for next Wednesday to consider a complaint against the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and decide whether it should have filed finance reports with the state covering its work on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. That hearing was postponed on Tuesday because the commission ran out of time.

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