AUGUSTA — Predictably, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that’s likely to weaken Maine’s public campaign-financing system pleased opponents of the state law and disappointed its supporters.

But neither side was surprised Monday when the court ruled 5-4 against the matching-funds provision in Arizona law, which was modeled after Maine’s.

The statute allowed for publicly financed candidates to receive matching funds, up to a cap, when spending by privately funded opponents exceeded the initial allotment given to their publicly funded competitors.

The majority of justices said the system placed a First Amendment burden on privately funded candidates and independent groups.

The minority said matching funds provide for more speech, not less.

“Except in a world gone topsy-turvy, additional campaign speech and electoral competition is not a First Amendment injury,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the dissent.

But Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that matching funds are unconstitutional.

“Even if the matching funds provision did result in more speech by publicly financed candidates and more speech in general, it would do so at the expense of impermissibly burdening (and thus reducing) the speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups,” he wrote.

The ruling was the latest in a series of decisions by the court’s conservative majority upending campaign finance laws.

But the court did not attack the validity of using public funds for campaign financing, giving a glimmer of hope to advocates of restrictions on spending in political campaigns.

Alison Smith, co-president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, called the decision disappointing, but not unexpected.

“This court has been aggressively and actively reshaping campaign finance law, and this is just another one in a series of decisions that we don’t agree with,” she said.

Smith said Mainers had anticipated the decision, and the Legislature has taken preliminary votes on a measure that allows lawmakers to amend the Maine Clean Election Act to comply with the ruling.

“We will apply our best thinking and work with other interested parties to rework our system so that we have a campaign finance system that once again works for Maine people,” she said.

House Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, an opponent of public campaign financing, hailed the decision.

“It is a vindication of what we have felt for some time, that the use of taxpayer funds for elections does have a chilling impact on those who choose to run as a privately or traditionally funded candidate,” he said.

Cushing said he hopes lawmakers move to eliminate the entire Maine Clean Elections law.

“Upon further review, I hope the decision will show that the entire process of public funding does not accomplish some of the stated goals of the Clean Elections advocates,” he said. “There is still, and will continue to be, an opportunity for large amounts of money to be spent on both sides of the equation and we need to stop fooling ourselves into thinking that public funding eliminates money in politics.”

State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, called the decision “ludicrous.”

“I’m of the opinion that the decision will put special interests and big money smack dab in the middle of the election process,” he said.

The issue is not necessarily partisan, with 80 percent of all Maine legislative candidates running under the public campaign finance system.

But Peter Mills – a former Republican lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate who ran with Clean Election funds – wondered how Maine’s law can be changed without threatening the viability of the system.

“The practical impact of this is that fewer people will take advantage of the Clean Election system,” he said. “The matching funds were a powerful, powerful component of that law and it’s gone.”

Mills said it was the comfort of knowing he would receive additional money in case an opponent tried to outspend him that led him to accept the spending limits of public financing.

And in his last gubernatorial campaign, he said, he was wildly outspent by the privately financed candidate Les Otten during the Republican primary.

“The point is, Les was able to beat me. I didn’t have any chilling effect,” he said.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, agreed that matching funds are “an attractive part” of Maine’s system.

“The court is very clear that states can still design public campaign finance programs – it just has to do so in the right way,” he said. “So Maine has to put on its thinking cap and look at different options.”

Smith said that although the decision will change Maine Clean Elections, it will endure.

“Democracy is too important to abandon in the wake of one bad decision; we are not going to throw up our hands and give up just because this is a setback for the Maine Clean Election matching-fund system,” she said.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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

 


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