Lawmakers and state officials are concerned that the burgeoning field in the 2018 gubernatorial race could drain the state’s fund for publicly financed candidates.

Exactly how much the fund would be depleted depends on several factors, including how many of the candidates – there are expected to be 20 in the race by the end of the month – raise the required matching funds to qualify for clean elections money.

Currently, six people in the race are running as clean elections candidates. Each could receive up to $1 million for a primary race if they raise 3,200 contributions of $5 or more from individual donors by April 2. General election candidates qualify for up to $2 million. The fund currently has balance of about $4.5 million.

“It could get very expensive,” said state Rep. Louie Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance and election laws.

The challenge, in part, has been compounded by the Legislature’s habit of drawing money from the fund to balance state budgets. On Friday, Luchini and Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which manages the fund and doles out the cash, said the funding levels are a concern.

Wayne said the ethics commission could go to the Legislature in January and seek additional money to cover campaigns if candidates become eligible and the funding is insufficient.

The fund, which also finances clean election candidates for the Legislature, has been the subject of controversy, as well as a failed attempt this year by mostly Republican lawmakers to make candidates for governor ineligible for public financing. Among the Republicans who voted to make gubernatorial candidates ineligible was Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls.

He is now running for governor as a clean elections candidate.

Mason, who was traveling outside the country, could not be reached for comment Friday.

State Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is running for governor as a privately financed candidate, said the Legislature should be setting aside enough funds to cover all six clean elections candidates in the race, even if it’s likely that not all of them will collect the matching funds they need to qualify.

“If there’s the potential for six you ought to have the money set aside for six because that’s your obligation,” Fredette said. “This shows why this is a flawed system. You create this system where there is a government-funded process and people will figure out how to use it and possibly abuse it, but at the end of the day these are taxpayer dollars that can’t be used to fund other priorities in the state budget and that’s what the real issue is.”

Fredette also said clean elections funding may make sense for legislative candidates, who can receive up to $16,000 in clean elections funds and may not otherwise have the resources to finance their own campaigns or raise private funds.

“I’m less offended by people using clean elections money to run for the Legislature,” Fredette said. “Very clearly on the flip side of that is when you are running for governor it’s a different ball game.”

He said any Republican candidates who have a track record of opposing publicly financed campaigns but are now running as clean elections candidates will have to answer to voters.

Luchini said the large field of candidates for governor also will put immense pressure on the pool of private donors in Maine, making cash hard to come by for everyone, even those running traditional privately financed campaigns.

“The well for private money is going to get pretty dry as well,” Luchini said, noting that this may entice more legislative candidates to seek public financing, adding to the pressure on the clean elections fund.

“We will definitely have to look at that in January, and not knowing how many candidates and not knowing how much it will need makes it a much bigger variable budgeting-wise,” Luchini said. “It’s a pretty big moving target.”

John Brautigan, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the advocacy group that has advanced state ballot measures to expand the public financing system, is less worried about a funding shortfall.

He believes that the threshold to qualify for the matching funds is so difficult that few candidates will actually be able to reach it, and that some candidates back away from clean elections funding because of the challenge.

“I still feel confident that we hit the right balance on the amount of difficulty there is to get the funding, and we will be in good shape,” Brautigan said. “They have to submit those qualifying contributions and, of course, they also have to survive the primary and there’s no guarantee there are going to be that many candidates who are going to get the full allocation of funding at the end of the day.”

Brautigan said that the alternative to public financing is private financing by big-money, special-interest donors to whom candidates become beholden.

Clean election candidates say public financing gives them the freedom to focus on issues and not just on raising funds. They say the voters who give $5 qualifying donations don’t expect to have a lot of sway with a candidate after they are elected.

Betsy Sweet, a Democrat running as a clean elections candidate for governor, and state Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent clean elections candidate for governor, each made a qualifying $5 donation to the other’s campaign. They praised the system in a joint statement this week.

“It’s time to get big money out of politics so democracy can be put back in the hands of ordinary people, not big donors and their interests,” Sweet said in the statement. Hayes echoed the sentiment.

“As a Clean Elections candidate, I am not beholden to wealthy donors or special interests lobbyists, only to the Maine people,” she said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog