AUGUSTA — Nobody testified against a bill that would strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act, which was weakened last year, at a legislative hearing Monday.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t powerful opposition. Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman has called the law “welfare for politicians.”
The bill, L.D. 1309, sponsored by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, would nearly triple the maximum amounts available to candidates running taxpayer-funded legislative and gubernatorial campaigns.
It would increase the maximum amounts from $4,923 to $16,500 to those in contested House races, from $21,455 to $65,000 to those in contested Senate races and from $1.2 million to $3.2 million to those in contested gubernatorial races. Those maximum amounts would be gained in steps during the election that correspond to the number of $5 qualifying contributions that candidates can secure from members of the public.
The bill, championed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, is aimed at beefing up the Clean Election Act after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a 2012 state election cycle dominated by independent expenditures. In a December news release, the group said outside groups spent more money than candidates did in the 2012 election cycle for the first time ever in Maine.
After he first ran as a Clean Election candidate in 2000, Youngblood said he was “hooked.”
“I was always comfortable talking to lobbyists because I knew that no matter how I voted, I did not need their contributions should I elect to run for office again,” he said.
But in 2011, the act’s long-standing matching-funds provision, which provided money to Clean Election candidates based on private money spent to bolster their opponents, was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court of Maine.
That was a response to an earlier decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a similar provision in Arizona, saying it inhibits the constitutional right to free speech. Matching funds were removed in 2012 by LePage and the Legislature.
In testimony, Emily Shaw, speaking for the League of Women Voters in Maine, said the elimination of matching funds narrowed the range of options for voters to “determine the role of big money in politics.” Shaw teaches political science at Thomas College, but said she was speaking not for the college but on behalf of the League of Women Voters.
A board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also endorsed the bill.
The Maine Ethics Commission called elimination of matching funds “a significant change to the program,” saying in the four election cycles before that change, between 40 percent and 50 percent of legislative Clean Election candidates received matching funds.
According to state data, participation in the program fell off in 2012 after matching funds were eliminated. In 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, between 77 percent and 81 percent of legislative candidates ran as Clean Election candidates. In 2012, that fell to 63 percent.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which administers the Clean Election Act, called the bill “a sensible way to address the issue” created by the court decisions.
In the current Legislature, state data said 70 percent of legislators were Clean Election candidates, down from 80 percent in the last Legislature. Despite a high rate of participation, some prominent Republicans, including LePage, oppose, on principle, publicly funded campaigns.
In January, Adrienne Bennett, the LePage spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that the governor wouldn’t support increasing public funding for elections, calling it “welfare for politicians.” On Monday, she stuck to that stance.
“Generally speaking, he’s not going to support that,” she said of Youngblood’s bill. “The sound bite still stands.”
Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: [email protected]