A referendum question on the November ballot promises to get the big money out of politics by … uh … spending more money on campaigns.

Put politely, this seems counterintuitive. Put bluntly, it’s stupid.

The language for Question One reads like this:

“Do you want to change Maine law to allow publicly financed political candidates to qualify for additional funds under certain circumstances, to improve the disclosure of who pays for political ads, and to increase penalties for violations of campaign finance law?”

If approved by voters – and there’s an excellent chance it will be, since voters rarely pay enough attention to realize the current Clean Election law hasn’t worked, and the revamped version won’t improve the situation – this referendum will cost taxpayers an additional $6 million per budget cycle.

Oops, sorry. That extra money won’t come from ordinary taxpayers, after all. According to the measure’s wording, it’ll be raised by eliminating unspecified forms of corporate welfare. Unfortunately, if the Legislature can’t agree on which tax breaks for businesses to do away with (and keep in mind that all previous attempts to accomplish this have ended in exactly nothing happening), the $6 million will still come out of our pockets.

Even so, this change in our law is totally worth it, according to Republican state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta. In a recent newspaper op-ed, Katz claimed the referendum “will elevate the voice of everyday Mainers in our political system and ensure that politicians are accountable to the people of Maine, not big-money groups spending millions to influence an election.”

What Katz neglects to mention is that “big-money groups” will still be able to spend as much as they like to influence elections. It’s quite possible that, due to the increased funding this proposal provides to candidates, those deep-pockets contributors will counteract the extra public money by increasing their spending.

But as the question indicates, there’s more to this measure than squandering another bunch of our tax dollars. It would also require political action committees that run advertising to include the names of their top three donors in the spots, so we’ll know who’s behind those nasty attack ads. But don’t expect to discover that the folks backing the well-funded effort to defeat your favorite legislator are the Committee to Subvert Democracy, the Council of Uncaring Fat Cats or Americans United for ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Political consultants for major campaigns will make sure the big checks are all written by organizations with suitably benign names, such as Mainers for Fairness and Other Good Stuff, Local Citizens Committed to Our Own Idea of Better Government or Folks Just Like You Who Want Nothing More Than Your Happiness and Well-Being.

Forcing campaigns to list this nonsense in their advertising would be pointless and an infringement on free speech, but what’s a little irrelevance and unconstitutionality when it comes to making us all feel better about the way we choose our elected leaders.

The new, improved Clean Election law will have one semi-useful component. It increases the penalties for violators, allowing the state ethics commission (motto: There’s Probably Nothing We Can Do About That) to impose fines equal to the amount misspent. I doubt that will deter any wealthy miscreants, but we can hope. And there’s always the chance the extra cash the bigger fines would generate will help cover the costs of that additional public financing.

If the good government crowd had really wanted to fix our campaign–finance system, they’d have included a provision in this referendum to ban one of the major abuses allowed under existing law. The current statute permits candidates to receive Clean Election funding while also collecting private donations through their personal PACs. The PAC money can’t be used for their own campaigns, but it can be contributed to their political parties, which in turn can use it for so-called independent expenditures supporting those same candidates. Or it can be employed to help out other legislators seeking re-election, in hopes such thoughtful gifts that in no way have any strings attached to them will persuade the grateful recipients to vote for the donors for leadership posts.

In other words, the “clean” politicians who work this scam are every bit as “dirty” as the big-money PACs Katz and his cohorts are so quick to condemn. The only difference is those PACs don’t get a check from the taxpayers to pay for their lawn signs and TV spots. They have the courtesy to wait until after the election to get their payoffs.

Clean out your supply of invectives by emailing [email protected]


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