AUGUSTA — The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted Thursday to authorize up to $3.5 million in Clean Elections payments that had been held up in the Legislature because of a typographical error.

The 3-1 vote by the panel, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, makes money available to about 200 candidates for the Legislature and one candidate for governor who qualified for public funding under the Maine Clean Election Act.

That group will include six recently declared candidates who supplanted place-holder candidates for the Legislature, including four Republicans and two Democrats. They can qualify to collect public financing for their races if they decide to do so by next Wednesday and turn in the required $5 qualifying contributions from voters.

Voting in opposition Thursday was Commissioner Richard Nass, a former Republican state senator from Acton, who said he didn’t think the ethics commission should have to fix a problem that should be solved by the Legislature.

“I am just opposed to us relieving the Legislature of the burden to give us the tools necessary to make this work,” Nass said.

State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent and the only Clean Elections candidate for governor, may be a major beneficiary of the commission’s vote to release the funds.

Her campaign could become eligible for supplemental payments under the law if it submits additional qualifying contributions. Hayes said Thursday that she suspended efforts to collect qualifying contributions while the funding was in limbo. The campaign becomes eligible for $175,000 in additional funds for every 1,200 matching $5 qualifying contributions it collects up to a maximum of $1.4 million in supplemental funds.

Hayes said the commission’s decision Thursday affirms not only what the Legislature intended, but what Maine voters have twice supported during statewide ballot measures.

“For me what’s so important about this is the voters, 20 years apart, the voters endorsed this program,” she said. “They want to get big money out of politics, and this may not get all of it out, but it’s a good start.”

Thursday’s vote came on the heels of a recent ruling by Kennebec County Superior Court Justice William Stokes that ordered the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage to release $1.4 million in separate, unspent Clean Elections funds left over from the 2016 election cycle for use by the 2018 candidates.

During a hearing on the case in July, a lawyer for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group that brought the suit, said that only about $100,000 of the unspent funds would go to candidates in LePage’s Republican Party, while close to 10 times that amount was owed to Democratic and unenrolled candidates. Hayes was a plaintiff in the suit, along with several other Clean Elections candidates and voters who made $5 qualifying contributions.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has argued that Stokes’ order provides the legal underpinnings for the ethics commission to release the funds held up by the typographical error.

A staff memo to the commission Wednesday also suggested that Stokes’ ruling gives it the authority to move ahead with the release of funds. In the ruling, Stokes said the clear intent of the Legislature was that funding should be made available to candidates despite any perfunctory administrative functions required by the governor’s office.

“Ever since the error was discovered, we have assumed that the Legislature would fix it through legislation,” ethics commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne wrote in the memo. “Thus far, legislative action has not occurred, however, and it appears unlikely in the near future.”

Under the Maine Clean Election Act approved by voters more than 20 years ago, candidates for the Legislature and governor can receive money to run their campaigns in exchange for forgoing most private contributions. Public campaign financing is billed as a way to reduce the influence of big-money special interests while allowing candidates more time to discuss issues with voters rather than ask for donations.

In the 2018 elections, House candidates running in contested races can receive a total of $7,600 for their primary and general election campaigns, while Senate candidates can receive $30,400. Gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, can receive between $800,000 and $1 million each.

In a prepared statement, John Brautigam, an attorney with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections who attended Thursday’s meeting and urged the commission to take action, praised the vote to release the funds.

“This is a common-sense decision that was based on the recent court decision releasing funds for the previous fiscal year,” Brautigam said. “By moving forward and making the required payments to eligible candidates, the commission is now restoring fairness and ending the unnecessary disruption to this election cycle. We celebrate the correct conclusion and the end of this disruptive chapter.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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