AUGUSTA — A Maine group working to limit the influence of money in politics rolled out a new proposal Tuesday to strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act by providing more money to publicly financed candidates, requiring interest groups to disclose sources of funding on campaign ads and increasing penalties for election law violations.
The citizen initiative, advanced by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, follows a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and state actions that have weakened and reduced candidate participation in the 14-year-old state program that was initially ratified by voters in 1996. The court actions, plus an ongoing push by national interests to make the legal argument that campaign spending is constitutionally protected, have threatened the viability of the pioneering Maine program modeled by other states.
Ann Luther, board president of MCCE, said during a press conference held at the State House that the new citizen initiative was needed to bolster the program and add transparency and accountability to the state’s election laws amid record spending on state races by political action committees funded by special interest groups, corporations and labor unions.
Luther said that recent court decisions and inaction by state lawmakers have given those wealthy interests an outsized voice in Maine politics and policy.
“This is an effort for those who believe that everyone should be represented in a democracy, not just the wealthy,” she said.
The media event marked the kickoff of a signature drive that, if successful, will require voter approval to become law. The group hopes to gather 70,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot next year.
Luther acknowledged that the proposal would not stop the flood of outside spending. But, she said, it would make publicly financed candidates more competitive against wealthy interests and more accountable to voters.
“So many studies have shown that you don’t need to have more money than the other guy, you just need to have enough money to get your message out,” Luther said.
The Clean Election Act was passed by voters in 1996 and installed in 2000. A major provision of the law created a system that allowed legislative and gubernatorial candidates to collect individual $5 checks from supporters to qualify for additional state funds to finance their individual campaigns.
The goal was to attract candidates who weren’t necessarily wealthy or connected to well-heeled donors or interest groups. In 2006 and 2008, participation in the program among legislative candidates hit its peak, 81 percent. Five gubernatorial candidates have used the program since 2002 and none have been elected.
The clean election fund paid $6.3 million to candidates in 2010. The program is funded with General Fund dollars and individual contributions through state tax returns.
Beginning in 2009, a series of legal and political changes decreased participation in the program.
The 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, along with increased gridlock in Congress, spawned new interest in state races for the governor and legislatures. In 2010, outside groups spent a record $1.5 million attempting to influence outcomes in legislative races. In 2012, $3.6 million of third-party spending on State House races shattered the 2010 record, and for the first time in Maine history, outside groups collectively spent more than all of the individual candidates.
In 2011, another U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down Arizona’s matching funds program and invalidated a similar provision in Maine law. Without matching funds to counter spending by well financed opponents or interest groups, Clean Election candidates were left vulnerable, leading more candidates to seek traditional financing.
Andrew Bossie, the executive director of the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said Tuesday that participation by legislative candidates was about 50 percent this year.
Supporters of the court decisions have argued that spending limits and public financing programs effectively limit free speech. They have found a sympathetic audience in the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the April 2 Supreme Court decision McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission that struck down aggregate limits by individual donors to multiple campaigns, Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that individual caps might be the next to go.
The court decisions validating the argument that campaign spending is protected by the First Amendment raise questions about state-led efforts to strengthen finance laws or beef up programs for publicly financed campaigns.
Luther, with MCCE, acknowledged the legal landscape, but said it would be too easy to “retreat into cynicism and skepticism.”
“We know that the entire success of our two-century-old democratic experiment rests on the willingness of ordinary citizens to step up and do extraordinary things,” she said.
The centerpiece of the MCCE proposal unveiled Tuesday is identical to a $10 million bill – $6 million from the General Fund – that was approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature last year, but never funded.
The proposal replaces the so-called matching funds system for qualifying Clean Elections candidates if they were outspent by their opponent or a political action committee.
Advocates with MCCE said the proposal would allow publicly financed candidates to be more competitive if they’re in danger of being outspent.
The Supreme Court decision that struck down the old matching funds law ruled that the provision discouraged spending, and hence, free speech.
Its proposed replacement would allow publicly financed gubernatorial candidates to receive a maximum of $2 million. Candidates for state Senate could receive a maximum of $60,000, while House candidates could receive up to $16,500.
The proposed funding contrasts with spending by outside groups in 2012. Third-party groups spent more than $455,000 to influence the District 32 state Senate race, the most targeted of the election.
Other measures in the initiative acknowledge the current legal and political landscape, specifically opinions expressed by the majority in U.S. Supreme Court decisions saying that increased spending could be accompanied by additional transparency.
The MCCE initiative includes a proposal that requires outside groups spending money on television, print, audio and Internet ads to include the name of the political group sponsoring the ad, as well as the group’s top three donors.
Other measures include increasing the penalties for filing late or incorrect finance reports. Another would require gubernatorial transition teams to disclose money donated by outside groups potentially seeking to influence cabinet appointments or policy.
Another major component of the bill would partially fund the clean election initiative by closing $3 million corporate tax loopholes.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: