AUGUSTA — Efforts to patch up a gaping hole left by the courts in Maine’s public campaign financing law failed Thursday as the state Senate voted to remove the so-called “matching fund” provision from the law. The bill faces further House and Senate votes.

After a debate that went on for more than two hours, senators rejected two proposals aimed at making up for the elimination of matching funds, a key component of the Maine Clean Election Act. Publicly funded candidates receive those extra infusions of money when their privately funded opponents receive additional funding or funding on their behalf.

But last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court declared illegal the matching fund provision in Arizona’s public financing law, which is similar to Maine’s.

With the elimination of matching funds, “we are left with a shell of the former Clean Election Act,’ said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, author of one of the amendments, which would have increased distributions to qualifying candidates and allowed them to collect more private startup money. It would help under-funded challengers to well-funded, entrenched candidates.

Sen. Philip Bartlett II, D-Gorham, said that proposal would bring too much private money into legislative campaigns.

A second proposal, also rejected, sought to allow for supplemental distributions in contested races.

Maine’s Clean Election Act, which was authorized by voters in 1996, provides public campaign funds to candidates in gubernatorial and legislative races who qualify by collecting minimum numbers of $5 contributions from the public. The system has proven to be very popular with legislative candidates, with nearly 80 percent participating in the 2010 elections.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which supports the public financing system, said the Senate’s action substantially weakens the law “at a time when people are more concerned than ever about the corrupting role that money plays in our elections and out government.”

Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, praised the Senate for preserving all portions of the Clean Elections Act that weren’t affected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Democrats called the Senate action a “do nothing option gutting Maine’s clean election system.”

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