An effort by a pair of Republican state lawmakers to remove gubernatorial candidates from Maine’s publicly financed political campaign system is being met with mixed reactions at the State House.

Reps. Joel Stetkis and Paula Sutton have co-sponsored a bill removing candidates for governor from the list of those who can become eligible for taxpayer support for an election campaign.

Stetkis, R-Canaan, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday that the program was a failure as it stands even though he supports the underlying goal of the state’s Clean Election Act, which was to remove special interest money from political campaigns. Stetkis said providing up to $3 million in taxpayer funds for every gubernatorial candidate who becomes eligible for public finances puts a financial burden on the state at the expense of other priorities.

Another bill, L.D. 408, on clean elections would prohibit the use of state funds for post-election celebrations. Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, said that in his most recent campaign his publicly financed opponent spent $500 on a post-election party, according to campaign finance records available with the Maine Ethics Commission. While that is not disallowed under the system, Collins said taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for a party for campaign volunteers.

“There are differing opinions on the clean election system and whether taxpayer money should be used to fund political campaigns,” Collins said. “But I think we can all agree that hardworking Maine citizens shouldn’t have to pay for parties after the election. It is clearly an abuse of the system and it’s time to put a stop to it.”

LEPAGE SUPPORTS PROPOSAL

Stetkis said lawmakers heard Thursday from the chief justice of Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court and learned how the state’s court system was already struggling to recruit security staff, because they can’t pay enough.

“We have a responsibility to our constituents,” Stetkis said. “Do we use their money on things like courthouse security or does it go to yard signs and bumper stickers for gubernatorial campaigns?”

Sutton, R-Warren, said while she is fundamentally opposed to using taxpayer funds to fuel political campaigns, she is even more opposed to using public funds for gubernatorial candidates – a practice she called “completely absurd.”

Stekis and Sutton also have an ally in Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who wrote in support of their bill, L.D. 300, saying he twice ran privately financed campaigns, spending less than his opponents while first winning the Republican primary in June 2010 and then twice winning a general election.

“Despite being (outspent) almost 2:1 during my (2014) re-election, I won with the highest number of votes ever (cast) for a Maine governor,” LePage wrote. “Statewide campaigns are usually large and well-funded. Providing millions in public funding to gubernatorial candidates is simply a waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”

In 2014 LePage’s re-election campaign spent $1.9 million while his top two rivals, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, each spend just over $3 million.

But supporters of clean elections said removing candidates for governor from the list of those who can become eligible for state funding is against the will of Maine voters, who have twice overwhelming approved publicly financing campaigns in statewide elections.

“Where the people have spoken loudly, clearly and repeatedly, we urge you to respect their decision,” said Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

Approved by voters in 1996, the Maine Clean Election Act allows candidates running for the Legislature or governor to receive public campaign financing in exchange for agreeing to forgo private donations. In 2015 voters also approved increasing the total pool of money available to the program, as well as increases to the potential disbursements of cash candidates could receive by allowing them to first collect additional $5 matching donations when a privately financed opponent outspends them. Candidates must decide whether they want to run with public funds or conduct a traditional campaign dependent only on private campaign contributions, which can come from both individuals and companies.

‘CLEAN ELECTION’ CALLED MISNOMER

Bossie said qualifying for public funds for a statewide governor’s race was difficult and required at least 3,200 individual qualifying contributions. Since 2002, he said, 78 candidates have registered to run for governor, but only 10 became clean election candidates and none of those have won the office.

Still, Bossie said public funding allows individuals who may not have otherwise been able to do so to enter the political arena and compete.

“Gubernatorial elections are expensive to run, making it much more difficult for a candidate of modest means to wage a successful campaign using only private funds,” Bossie said. “Each gubernatorial cycle we have seen one or more privately funded candidates with longstanding ties to business and/or PAC contributors, millions of dollars of their own funds – or both.”

But Sutton, who also campaigned against the 2015 ballot question to increase public funds for campaigns, said the idea that Maine’s publicly financed program was truly “clean” was a misnomer because private donors could still give money to various political action committees, which are allowed to independently spend for or against a candidate without coordination with any candidate’s campaign. Those PACs can also donate to other PACs or to political parties, which can likewise make so-called independent expenditures to support or oppose a candidate for office.

The effect, Sutton said, was that the Clean Election Act did little to keep special interest money out of politics. She said instead of giving directly to candidates, individual donors were now bankrolling PACs. “The voters of Maine were told (clean elections) would level the playing field and allow regular people to run for political office,” Sutton said.

She noted that if another law approved by voters in 2016 – to switch Maine to ranked-choice voting system for statewide races – is upheld, more candidates will be likely to run for governor and more will become eligible for public funds, increasing costs to taxpayers. She said with $1 million in primary money on the table and $2 million in general election funds available, an increase in candidates would likely mean an increase in costs to the publicly financed races.

“Recent news articles point to at least eight individuals considering running for governor in 2018,” Sutton said. “You can do the math.”

KEEPING OUT SPECIAL INTERESTS

Sutton said LePage was the perfect example of why public funds were not necessary for gubernatorial races. “Somehow he managed to twice get elected to the position of governor without the use of taxpayer dollars,” Sutton said. “I think ultimately he has proven that, if a candidate is willing to do the hard work and has a strong message, they will prevail.”

A number of Maine taxpayers and citizens also weighed in Friday both in support of the proposal and against it.

“A gubernatorial candidate is the last place myself and many, many more taxpayers wish to see tax dollars squandered, (especially) on more of the many things that annoy all of us in the first place: (campaign) road signs, et cetera,” Kerin Resch of Warren wrote in testimony to the committee.

Paul Collins of Rockland wrote that candidates should be “out there hustling for financing. Otherwise it looks like welfare for our politicians.”

But supporters of the Clean Election Act said it was still the best hope of keeping special interests from having too much influence on candidates and elections.

Linda Wilcox of Monmouth, who worked on the 2015 campaign to strengthen Maine’s Clean Election Act, said the growth in private spending on gubernatorial campaigns in Maine was increasing, and without public funding for gubernatorial candidates it would likely increase even more. She said since 2004 the amount spent on the race from the governor’s office in Maine had doubled from $4 million to $8 million.

“The reality is that money buys influence and access,” Wilcox said. “That is why Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has been working so hard for 20 years to ensure that we have an alternative.”

She noted that candidates for any state office could make the choice not to accept private money in their campaigns.

“Governors, by virtue of their powerful positions, are even more attractive to major donors than individual legislators,” Wilcox said. “It would be a major step backward to remove the clean election option from gubernatorial candidates.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

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