Political analysts and former state senators Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman discuss Maine’s upcoming Clean Elections referendum.

Ethan: How are you gonna vote this fall on the referendum to rebuild our Clean Elections program?

Phil: You mean the Welfare-for-Politicians referendum?

Ethan: I mean the Get-Big-Money-Out-of-Politics referendum.

Phil: You mean the Stifle-our-First-Amendment-Rights referendum?

Ethan: I mean the Return-our-Elections-to-‘Of,-By-and-For-the-People’ referendum.

Phil: You mean the I-Will-Not-Take-Private-Donations-to-Run-But-I-Will-Take-Private-Donations-For-My-Political-Action-Committee referendum?

Ethan: Well, you do win on that last one. But that isn’t the law’s fault. That’s the fault of legislators who play that game.

Phil: So, what changes are in the proposed referendum that will attempt to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear you call “Clean Elections?”

Ethan: In a nutshell, the referendum will require outside groups to disclose their top donors on all political ads and new governors will have to disclose the donors to their transition team.

Phil: I can live with that.

Ethan: It increases penalties for those who break election rules. Now people can get fined for 100 percent of the violation.

Phil: I have always believed that the punishment should fit the crime. That sounds reasonable.

Ethan: And last but not least, it creates a new “matching money” system that passes constitutional muster for candidates who have opponents who outspend them.

Phil: I will leave the “constitutional muster” question for those more qualified than me, but, I do have to ask. How much will all this glorious new government cost us?

Ethan: Only $1 million more a year than what we currently pay.

Phil: Which is how much in total over a budget cycle?

Ethan: $6 million. But, all of it comes from closing corporate tax loopholes.

Phil: “Tax loopholes.” Otherwise known as incentives that encourage employers to invest by giving them back their own money.

Ethan: Otherwise known as corporate welfare run amok.

Phil: So you embrace increasing “politician welfare” by 32 percent by cutting so-called “corporate welfare” by the same? Forgive me for feeling a bit cynical that you are favoring politicians over small businesses.

Ethan: I am not favoring politicians over small businesses. I am favoring less corporate money influencing politicians, at the expense of small businesses (and many others).

Phil: How about we cut the funding all together and use the $6 million for people on waiting lists for disability services?

Ethan: Because I want to get to the root cause of the problem in our democracy. I want to confront those who manipulate our politics with their money, because they are definitely not people with disabilities, and their influence prevents us from helping those most in need.

Phil: I get your point. It just seems to me that using public money to buy signs, ads and pay consultants should not come from the treasury. It should come from the candidate who can muster the support.

Ethan: But the core cause of who impacts our legislation is the millions of dollars lobbyists funnel into campaigns. You and I both know that those with disabilities, and kids, and even local mom-and-pop stores like your parents owned, are not the ones with rich lobbyists. Regular folks just don’t get heard. I expect that is why your current party chairman, Rick Bennett, has often called for clean elections to be strengthened.

Phil: We have had Clean Elections for more than 15 years now. Tell me how this track record has chased special interest money out of elections and leveled the playing field for candidates?

Ethan: In 2010, the last time we had a fully funded and functioning Clean Elections program, 92 percent of Senate Republicans refused to take private money and 82 percent of Senate Democrats. That’s a pretty strong statement.

Phil: Interesting that Republicans had more than Democrats.

Ethan: And interestingly, they were awarded a majority in the Senate for the first time in 15 years.

Phil: I am pretty sure we won the Senate because of our policies, not because of how our campaigns were funded.

Ethan: Probably. But what matters is that elections are level and not overly influenced by private money. If one candidate can drown out an opponent with big money on television, radio, social media, etc., the person with more money gets to speak louder. I don’t want candidates with the most money to always win.

Phil: It takes more than money to win. You need volunteers, technology, organization and perhaps more importantly a competent, likeable and compelling candidate.

Ethan: Are you saying even money can’t buy Donald Trump the White House?

Phil: Yes. Public or private money.

Phil Harriman is a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling is a former Democratic state senator from Portland. They can be contacted on Facebook at Agree to Disagree or Twitter: @senpeh and @ethan6_2.


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