Just as supporters of Maine’s Clean Election Act are lauding the program’s success over the past 10 years, others say it costs the state too much and are eyeing potential changes.

The landmark legislation, which provides public financing for campaigns, was passed by a citizens initiative in 1996 and took effect in 2000.

In the most recent election cycle, more than 80 percent of all legislative candidates, three gubernatorial primary candidates and one general election candidate used the system to fund their campaigns. About $6.3 million in public funding was spent, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

But in a weak economy and in a state facing a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall, the taxpayer-funded system was heavily criticized by some on the campaign trail, particularly in the gubernatorial race, where about $3 million was spent in primary and general elections.

Now that Republicans — who campaigned on cutting government spending — control both the Legislature and Blaine House for the first time in decades, the program will likely be eyed critically.

“I think generally through the budget process, there will be a lot of scrutiny of the money that has been spent on Clean Elections, probably more especially on the governor’s race than the legislative,” said Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield, who served on the committee of oversight for Clean Election and acted as a Republican leader on the topic.

Fitts ran a privately financed campaign in 2010; he also said he is not planning to submit legislation to alter the system.

At a forum Thursday moderated by independent former Gov. Angus King, academics and experts said the Clean Election system is a model that needs to be replicated in more states and perhaps federally.

Panelists said most people appreciate the trade-off between spending public money on candidates but removing the power of special interests.

Nick Nyhart, who is president and CEO of Public Campaign and helped Maine first establish the Clean Election law, said the seed-money process helps the public buy into the program. In order to qualify for public money, candidates must collect a certain number of $5 donations — seed money — from registered voters.

“In Maine, individual citizens get to decide who runs a qualified campaign, so it gives ordinary voters more power and they like that,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily negate the idea (that people don’t like spending tax money on campaigns), but if you give them a choice between what we have now and your own small dollars being a voice for making a difference, that tends to trump the other issues.”

Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard University and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, said all taxpayers have their money spent on things they would not normally choose.

“People pay for schools even when they don’t have kids,” he said. “It’s just the nature of government that you pay for things you don’t necessarily want to on your own. But I understand. That’s a very salient criticism.”

Lessig began the forum with an extensive presentation of how money pervades the federal election system and ultimately influences public policy.

Maine’s public financing system, he said, blunts the influence of wealthy special interests and results in better government.

“Dependency of (lawmakers) on special interest is not the dependence envisioned by the framers,” he said. “The envisioned dependency on the people alone; the funders are not the people.”

Other public-financing supporters said the program allows for more diversity amongst legislative candidates, because they do not need to rely on personal wealth or rich friends to run for office.

Fitts countered that sentiment, saying campaigns are pretty cheap to run in Maine. He admitted, though, that the system likely reins in the cost of running for office.

“The opportunity to run is there, whether you run Clean or not, for a fairly modest amount, compared to other states,” he said. “To run for, say, a House seat, I think people can do it for easily $4,000, which is what the Clean Election tends to run, in that ballpark.”

Other issues have re-emerged this year regarding the constitutionality of Clean Election’s matching funds policy, which allows publicly financed candidates to receive additional money if an opponent or opposing group spends money campaigning against the Clean Election candidate.

In August, Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, and former Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the provision, claiming it violated the First Amendment and had a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Courts denied the men’s request to issue an injunction immediately ceasing the use of matching funds, but the underlying suit persists.

The Maine law was upheld during a previous challenge, but a similar system in Arizona was recently successfully challenged.

“This issue of matching money and PACs and the effect they have on races will certainly be discussed. I don’t know how far it will get,” Fitts said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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