AUGUSTA — A Maine group is hoping to breathe new life into the state’s struggling public-financing elections law by providing Clean Election candidates access to more campaign-trail cash, allowing them to better compete with their privately financed opponents.

After spending months gathering support across the state, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections plans to deliver roughly 80,000 signatures to the secretary of state Wednesday to put its proposal before voters. It needs at least 61,123 validated signatures to make it on the ballot.

The goal is to level the playing field for publicly financed candidates, encouraging more people seeking office to take advantage of the system and reducing the influence of private money in politics, the group says.

At its peak in 2008, more than 80 percent of candidates used public funds. But in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision that allowed Clean Election candidates to receive extra money when they were being outspent.

Since then, participation in the program has steadily declined – to just more than 50 percent this year – because candidates cannot qualify for enough money to remain competitive when they’re targeted by privately funded rivals and independent groups, said B.J. McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

“Right now, Clean Election candidates are essentially sitting ducks because they are so outspent and they don’t really have a chance to get their message out,” he said.


Under its proposal, a House candidate with an uncontested primary and contested general election could receive as much as $15,500 and a Senate candidate could get roughly $60,000. Last year, those House and Senate candidates would have qualified for just more than $5,000 and $23,000, respectively.

Meanwhile, gubernatorial candidates would be able to receive as much as $3 million, up from the current $1 million.

To receive extra funds, candidates would have to prove they have support by collecting a certain number of $5 donations from people in their district. For example, a Senate candidate would have to collect more than 500 checks in order to receive the maximum amount of public funds. That’s likely to only happen in the most hotly contested races, McCollister said.

The group is still weighing whether to put the measure on the ballot this November or wait until 2016.

But its proposal could face some competition.

A Republican senator has put in a bill to ask voters whether they want to repeal the Clean Election Act, which was approved in 1996.


Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn says that the program – which Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has called “welfare for politicians” – has failed to keep special interest money out of politics. Brakey says the state should consider whether the resources would be better spent elsewhere, such as aiding nursing homes.

“Our tax dollars are paying for negative campaign mailers, attack ads, and victory parties,” he said in an email. “Do Maine people want politicians to continue spending their tax money in this way?”

The Clean Elections proposal would also boost fines for campaign finance violations and require third-party groups to list their top donors on political ads. It also seeks to make newly elected governors disclose who is funding their transition expenses and inaugural festivities.

It would cost $6 million in the two-year budget, or about $2 million more than the program costs as it stands now, McCollister said. The group wants the state to find the funding by closing a corporate tax loophole that “demonstrates no economic benefit to Maine citizens,” he said.

Former Sen. Ed Youngblood, who ran three times as a Clean Election candidate before deciding to retire last year, said it’s clear from his experience that Maine voters support a strong public finance election system. The Republican from Brewer said he believes his constituents threw their support behind him in part because they knew he wouldn’t be beholden to special interest groups.

While the proposal will not fix all the problems in the election system, it’s a good first step, said Youngblood, who’s now on Maine Citizens for Clean Elections’ board of directors.

“Will it take all this big money that we all get mad about out of politics? No,” he said. “But you got to start somewhere to curb this enormous amount of growing money.”

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