AUGUSTA — From candy and party beads tossed out at Fourth of July parades to drill batteries and T-shirts, candidates running for the Legislature under the taxpayer-financed Clean Election Act are spending their campaign cash on a variety of goods and services that could leave some voters scratching their heads.

So far in 2016, taxpayers have covered about $3.3 million in campaign-related expenses, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices. In all, taxpayers could foot the bill for up to $6 million in campaign spending, based on changes to the clean elections law approved by voters in 2015. About 230 candidates have signed on for the funding, which requires them to collect $5 qualifying contributions from registered voters – 60 for House candidates and 175 for Senate candidates.

Senate candidates can be eligible for up to $70,000 in taxpayer-funded support, and House candidates can collect up to $17,500.

The bulk of candidate spending goes for predictable campaign expenses: lawn signs, television, radio and print advertisements, mailed campaign brochures, bumper stickers and even lumber for handmade signs. But other expenses – such as candy, party beads, rechargeable batteries for drills, take-out meals or thousands of dollars worth of T-shirts and hats – have skeptics of the state’s publicly financed campaign system saying it’s not what voters were promised.

They also question the effectiveness of 2015 amendments to the clean elections law. Those amendments were supposed to provide more disclosure of independent spending by parties or political action committees that spend money attacking or supporting clean elections candidates. The amendments have been largely ineffective, as the PACs and parties are increasingly passing money around, making it more difficult to tell where the money came from in the first place.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who doesn’t take clean elections funds and has been a critic of the program, said when the state is facing shortfalls in funding for services to the elderly and disabled, candidates should not be collecting taxpayer funds. And while Brakey wouldn’t speak critically about any specific lawmakers participating in clean elections, he said both Republicans and Democrats appear to be willing to use public funds in dubious ways.


“These may be legitimate campaign expenses, but it really doesn’t seem to be the best prioritization of taxpayer money to buy things like robocalls and junk mail,” Brakey said. He said that compared with traditionally financed candidates who collect most of their money from individual donors, those taking state funds for their campaigns can easily forget who is actually footing the bill.

“There does seem to be a lot more casualness about how people spend these dollars,” Brakey said.

Even candidates running in what many would consider safe races, such as Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, are taking public funds. In 2014, Saviello won re-election to his District 17 seat in western Maine’s Franklin County with 72 percent of the vote and 7,650 more votes than his Democratic rival, Joanne Dunlap of Rangeley.

Dunlap, a traditionally financed candidate, is running against Saviello again. She has raised just $750, with $700 of that coming from a donation she made to her own campaign. And according to Dunlap’s most recent campaign finance reports, she has spent just over $59 on supplies for a get-out-the-vote headquarters in Rangeley. That left her with $139 to spend as of Oct. 25.

Saviello, by contrast – and within the rules of the program – has collected $62,000 of public campaign cash, spending $43,083 on his campaign, including $213 for party beads to toss out during a parade and $88 for candy.

Saviello said Wednesday he follows the rules, and that he can’t take re-election for granted.


“The first time you make an assumption like that you’re dead in the water,” said Saviello, who is seeking a fourth term. He said he has always thrown out party beads during parades, and noted that other politicians give out little American flags that are often left behind on the ground after a parade. “And that doesn’t seem right to me, either,” he said.

Saviello also bought a computer and office equipment for his campaign office. However, those purchases were made with seed money he collected from individual donors. The seed money enabled him to qualify for Clean Elections Act funds.  Saviello said he made the expenditures to ensure he’s doing his homework and is prepared to counter any last-minute political maneuvers by his opponent or her supporters.

After the election, publicly financed campaigns must return unused money to the Clean Election Fund. Likewise, any property or equipment that was purchased with taxpayer money must be sold for “fair market value” and the proceeds returned to the fund.

Saviello said he decided to go after the maximum in public financing to prove the point that he could collect the matching $5 contributions required from voters quickly, even before the June primary.

He also said that bills he has sponsored to require more disclosure for out-of-state PACs that get involved in Maine elections have been defeated in the Legislature.

And with hundreds of thousands of dollars still being spent by PACs for and against publicly financed candidates, Saviello admits that little has been done or can be done to keep so-called “dark money” from influencing political races.


He said he recently bought a batch of T-shirts with his public campaign funds that will be aimed at helping him get support from University of Maine at Farmington students who trend toward Democratic candidates. Republicans don’t try to win the campus, he said, but they do try to level the playing field.

“We have to break even there,” Saviello said. “And the kids love T-shirts.”

Saviello said the alternative to publicly financed campaigns is having lawmakers who are beholden to special interests or large party donors. Still, he agrees with Brakey that Maine’s system has done little to stem the flow of independent expenditures.

“It really hasn’t taken a dime out of the elections,” Saviello said. “They really are just playing a shell game now.”

Another publicly financed candidate, Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash in northern Maine’s Aroostook County, defended his use of public funds to buy batteries for a drill he has used to install campaign signs. Jackson, who left the Senate in 2014 to run unsuccessfully for Congress, said he’s had both Democrats and Republicans use independent expenditures to run ads critical of him.

He agrees that Maine’s system for public financing hasn’t limited the negative attacks funded by outside interests, but he also thinks it does help give candidates who aren’t beholden to special interests a better chance.


“Some candidates that wouldn’t be able to raise that type of money from the lobby or some of these other groups, it certainly gave them a shot at being able to actually run and to be effective at running, so I think that’s probably a good thing,” said Jackson, who has accepted $61,994 in public funds.

Jackson, who has spent $42 of that money on parade candy, said that may not be the best use of taxpayer funds, and noted that many parades are now asking candidates not to throw candy because of safety and health concerns. But he said candy is one of the allowable expenses listed under the rules for clean elections candidates.

“Maybe it is something that should be removed from the allowable expenses,” Jackson said. “But when you’re walking down the street and you see a group of kids, they’ve come to expect that and that’s what they are there for, and if anything in those parades if you can make a couple of kids happy, I guess that’s a good thing. But maybe using clean elections money to buy that candy probably isn’t the best use either.”


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:19 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, to specify that the money that candidate Tom Saviello used to buy a computer and office equipment for his Senate District 17 campaign came from the seed money he collected from individual contributors in order to qualify for Clean Elections Act funding. He did not use Clean Elections Act funds to buy these items.


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