AUGUSTA — Maine’s ethics commission agonized Thursday over a proposal designed to shed more light on who is donating to large political organizations that try to influence elections in the state.

The five-member panel voted 4-1 to send the proposal to the Legislature for final ratification, but not before several commissioners said they didn’t fully support it.

A record $14 million was spent by outside interest groups on the November 2014 election in Maine, furthering a national trend that has seen well-funded groups spend unlimited amounts of money trying to sway voters in gubernatorial and legislative races. Over $13 million of that amount was spent by just five political action committees, yet current state law allows the organizations bankrolling the committees to shield the names of donors.

The groups – 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, but not to disclose the sources of their funding.

The proposal by the ethics commission staff would require those groups to reveal their major donors. The proposal, which would require final approval from the Legislature, follows a major victory for the commission in its four-year effort to force the National Organization for Marriage to name its donors from the 2009 marriage equality campaign. Unlike NOM, the groups that tried to influence the 2014 election in Maine are not accused of breaking current election laws. However, Jonathan Wayne, who drafted the proposal under consideration Thursday, said current law allows organizations to spend large amounts of money in Maine without any obligation to provide the state’s voters with information about the sources of their income.

Wayne acknowledged that the proposal is more significant than typical ethics commission legislation. However, he said, the initiative is designed to address a “troubling trend” in state elections and is worthy of the commission stepping outside of its role of proposing technical fixes to Maine election laws.

The proposal was met with resistance by some board members.

“I’m absolutely opposed to this,” said commission member Richard Nass, who voted against sending the measure to the Legislature. “I think we’ve gone as far as we can go to eliciting donations.”

POSING PROBLEMS FOR NONPROFITS

Nass argued that an attempt to disclose donors could become an administrative “disaster.”

“I understand it’s important to tell people who’s is donating, but isn’t it more important to ask people what the question is?” he said. “In my mind it’s more important that people pay more attention to what the (referendum) question is.”

Kate Knox, an attorney for Bernstein Shur who has represented various political organizations, including the Maine Democratic Party, said the proposal could pose problems for nonprofit interest groups who often promise donors anonymity. Knox said donors to those groups may be uncomfortable appearing on a campaign finance report as having supported a particular candidate or political campaign.

Other commission members said the proposal was worth public debate, although several were unsure if they fully supported it.

Under current law, the majority of political action committees 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.

GAINING URGENCY IN 2014

Wayne has said the proposal is a response to the growing trend of campaigns being financed by outside groups. The issue has been on the commission’s agenda for some time, yet it 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 races than the candidates themselves.

Outside groups spent more than $10 million to influence voters in the race for governor or the Legislature 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 to 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 and unsuccessful campaign to prohibit hunting bears with bait or dogs.

Wayne said the proposals are modeled after laws already on the books in Massachusetts, Michigan and California.

The spending by many of the groups active in Maine reflects their attempts to influence voters in other states. The RGA spent over $170.7 million in 36 gubernatorial contests in 2014. The DGA spent $98.4 million.

ENDORSING QUESTION 1

Also Thursday, two major players in Maine politics endorsed a November ballot initiative that would require organizations to disclose the three top donors on political ads.

Former Maine governor and U.S. Sen. Angus King and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell voiced their support for Question 1, which also would increase funding for Maine’s public campaign financing system and stiffen penalties for campaign finance violations.

“It’s an important way for all Mainers – Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents – to protect their voice in our democracy, increase transparency in the political process, and support a system that prioritizes voters over donors,” Mitchell, a Democrat who served as Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement. “It is possible to enact reasonable restraints on the flow of money into the political process and a ‘Yes’ vote on Question 1 is a step in the right direction.”

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.