The Maine ethics commission staff is proposing new campaign finance requirements for organizations, including many from out of state, that funnel huge sums of money into Maine elections but are not required to disclose their donors.

The proposed changes, which will be discussed next week, are designed to shed light on who is funding groups from all parts of the political spectrum that are playing an increasingly prominent role in hotly contested elections and ballot questions in Maine. During the November 2014 election, for instance, five national groups spent or donated more than $13 million to sway voters on the race for governor and the referendum over bear hunting.

While the organizations – the Democratic Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association, the Humane Society of the United States, NextGen Climate Action Committee and the League of Conservation Voters – were required to report how much money they spent in Maine, they are not required under current law to spell out the origins of that money.

The ethics commission staff wrote in a memo outlining the proposal that, while none of the groups violated Maine’s campaign finance laws, “a weakness in the law … allows organizations to spend large amounts of money in Maine with no obligation to provide Maine voters with any information about the sources of their income.”

“We are trying to raise awareness that Maine election law is not working as well as it could to provide information to Maine voters and to the election system,” Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said Friday. “But this is really just a beginning point of the discussion.”

Under current law, the majority of political action committees, or PACs, operating in Maine are created specifically to influence elections and must disclose the identities of individuals or organizations that donate $50 or more. The donor disclosure rules are different, however, for multipurpose organizations involved in political campaigns in other states – such as the national party committees – or that also focus on activities outside of elections.


Oftentimes, such “outside groups” create PACs or ballot question committees to spend money on Maine races, but are not required to reveal the identity of most donors because the money comes from the organization’s general treasury.

The ethics commission staff is proposing legislation that would require political action committees and ballot question committees “whose primary focus is something other than influencing Maine elections” to report donor information if the organizations spend more than $5,000 on either candidate elections or referendums in Maine. The bill lays out a complex set of criteria for when disclosures would be required.

Andrew Bossie, executive director of the nonpartisan Maine Citizens for Clean Elections group, which is active on campaign finance issues, said the proposal would help keep voters informed as the nature of election funding changes.

“What we are seeing here is a loophole that is being used by both sides” as they shield donor identities, Bossie said. “There is a need for fair debate and every Maine citizen has a right to know where campaign money is coming from and who is trying to influence our votes.”

The five-member commission will consider the staff proposal next Thursday and, if approved, would send the proposal to the Legislature for possible consideration. The request comes as Bossie and other leaders of Mainers for Accountable Elections lead the campaign for Question 1 on this November’s ballot. That referendum would increase funding for Maine’s public campaign financing system used by candidates, stiffen penalties for campaign finance violations and require organizations to disclose the three top donors on political ads.

The ethics commission proposal comes two months after the agency, which oversees the state’s campaign finance laws, won a years-long legal battle to force the National Organization for Marriage to disclose the names of individuals who bankrolled much of the successful 2009 campaign to fight same-sex marriage in Maine. Although the case centered on a separate issue – whether the organization should have registered as a ballot question committee in Maine – the proposed campaign finance changes are consistent with the commission’s focus on broader donor disclosure.


But Wayne said the proposal is more a response to the growing trend, in Maine and nationally, about how elections are financed by outside groups. The issue has been on the commission’s agenda for some time, yet gained urgency after the staff reviewed spending trends during the 2014 election. In fact, 2014 was the first year that outside groups spent more to influence Maine voters in the top race than the candidates themselves.

Outside groups spent more than $10 million to influence voters in the race for governor or State House races last year, eclipsing previous spending levels by so-called “independent organizations.”

The Republican Governors Association funneled $5.1 million into a local political action committee dubbed the RGA Maine PAC to help Gov. Paul LePage win re-election. The Democratic Governors Association directed $3 million into the organizations Democratic Governors Association PAC and Maine Forward in an effort to defeat LePage and elect former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. The League of Conservation Voters and NextGen Climate Action Committee funneled a combined $3.5 million into Maine, largely to defeat LePage.

The Humane Society of the United States and the organization’s legislative fund, meanwhile, gave $2.1 million to Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting as part of the contentious but unsuccessful campaign to prohibit hunting bears with bait or dogs.

“Different states are encountering the same problem and are trying to find a solution to the issue,” said Wayne, adding that aspects of the commission’s proposal are modeled after laws on the books in California and other states.

“We think the Maine public deserves more information than they are getting now about how Maine elections are financed.”

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, had not yet read the commission staff’s proposal but indicated that the party generally supports transparency efforts as long as they are applied equitably to all organizations.

“Transparency is really good for the Maine political world,” Savage said. “We support efforts to increase transparency.”

Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said officials were reviewing the proposal, but added, “We are supportive of efforts to increase transparency in campaign finance.”

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