One of the central tenets of Maine’s Clean Elections law was that public financing would free candidates from relying on money from special interests and wealthy contributors, and return their focus, and obligation, to the voters. That purpose is being undermined, however, by the presence of political action committees that are unlimited in what they can raise and unrestricted on how they can spend it.

Unless reforms are made, outside interest groups and out-of-state contributors will continue to have undue influence over and access to legislators, to the detriment of Maine residents who cannot afford large contributions but must nevertheless live with the decisions made in Augusta.

There was a reminder last week of the gaping loophole in campaign finance law in a report on Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. According to the group, the John Tuttle For Leadership PAC, created by the longtime state legislator to help other Democratic candidates get elected, has spent only 30 percent of the $31,179 it has raised since 2008 on direct help to other candidates. The majority — $17,251 — has been used to reimburse Tuttle for travel and car repair, and to pay his wife and daughter for bookkeeping and other services.

The issue, though, isn’t necessarily with how the money was spent, but where it comes from — largely lobbyists and special interest groups.

As a Clean Elections candidate, Tuttle is limited to raising seed money contributions, which are allowed only at the beginning of a campaign and come with significant restrictions, and the $5 contributions from residents of his district that qualify him for public financing.

Privately financed candidates have a limit, too, of $375 per contributor per election cycle.

As with political action committees in general, the PACs formed by legislative leaders or group of legislators, known as leadership and caucus PACs, respectively, have no limits, however, and contributors take advantage.

According to a report by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, 32 of the largest PACs controlled by candidates and legislators in Maine raised a total of $12 million from 2002-12. Of that total, $9.1 million came from 152 contributors who each gave a total of $15,000 or more, and $4.8 million, almost 39 percent, came from outside of Maine.

In that same time, all Maine candidates raised for their own campaigns a total of only $4.6 million.

And of the 58 legislators listed as “principal officers, fundraisers and decision makers” for leadership and caucus PACs, 46 used public funding in one or more campaign.

That means many of the candidates taking Clean Elections funds with the ostensible purpose of forgoing outside money, and its accompanying influence, still are benefiting from special interests and wealthy contributors at a level that far exceeds what they are receiving from average voters in their district.

That is a distortion of democracy, and unless reasonable limitations are placed on how PACs operate, attempts like the Clean Elections law to level the playing field when it comes to campaign finance will continue to fall short.

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