AUGUSTA — Political wrangling over Maine’s public campaign financing system continued Tuesday night even as the head of the state ethics commission warned that a clerical error is about to halt payments to participating candidates.

In a memo to commission members, Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said the Maine Clean Election Act fund does not have enough money to issue full payments due to 120 candidates in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, which ends Saturday. Also at stake is about $3 million for next fiscal year that was included in the current state budget – and has already been transferred to the clean elections account – but that the commission cannot legally release to candidates because of a typographical error.

On Wednesday, the Maine Ethics Commission is expected to discuss the shortfall, which also could affect the operations of its staff, including paying the rent for its office space. Lawmakers appeared at an impasse over fixing the issue late Tuesday, however, as House Republicans continued to oppose the clerical fix.

“Our caucus has never been a big proponent of Clean Elections (funding) and I still don’t think we’re a big proponent of Clean Elections,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner.

In his memo, Wayne said the Clean Elections fund has been alloted just under $390,000 but owes candidates more than $1.3 million. Wayne’s memo said full disbursement would not be made to 120 candidates, including 37 Senate candidates, 82 House candidates and one candidate running for governor, Terry Hayes.

The announcement came as the Legislature engaged in partisan wrangling over how to fix a typographical error in the law that funds the state’s publicly financed election campaign system.

Wayne also said Republican Gov. Paul LePage has twice refused to sign off on the use of about $1.9 million in clean elections money left over from 2016 that went unspent in 2017. The commission has asked LePage to sign financial orders to use the money to help fund candidates this year, but so far he has refused.

Lawmakers who support the system said Tuesday that those holding up the fix, largely members of the Republican minority caucus in the House, were seeking to gain an advantage in the fall campaigns and also breaking a deal they made last year. House Republican lawmakers countered that Democrats had rejected a compromise proposal that involves returning $3 million to the state’s General Fund in exchange for fixing the error that prevents the release of funds.

“There were a lot of different things that were negotiated in the budget and we had a deal,” said Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, “and where I’m from a deal is a deal.”

Jackson said he agreed to provisions in the budget deal of 2017 that he disliked, too, but he wasn’t trying to go back on those agreements now.

But House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said that in the past two weeks the Legislature has added about $140 million in new spending to the state’s current budget cycle, and the revenue surplus was going to be less than $200,000 by the time lawmakers finished. He said Republicans wanted to return some of the money previously put into the clean elections account because they didn’t believe it would all be needed anyway.

“We are trying to pay attention to our books,” Fredette said. He dismissed the notion that House Republicans were backing out of a deal they had made. He said the final budget, which many House Republicans voted for and LePage signed into law to end a short state government shutdown, was largely negotiated by Democrats and Senate Republicans.

Late Tuesday night, House Democrats floated a compromise aimed at picking up Republican support. Democrats agreed to support a bill from LePage that would prevent candidates from seeking campaign contributions at polling places on Election Day – legislation that appeared aimed at clean elections candidates seeking qualifying contributions. In return, Democrats wanted Republicans to correct the clerical error that was preventing the disbursement of public campaign financing.

Democrats said it was important that the state live up to its financial obligations to lawmakers who agreed to forgo private contributions in return for public campaign financing.

Timberlake acknowledged in a floor speech that he knew about the clerical error last year during the final stages of the budget process. But Timberlake said he opted to let the issue go until this year when it would come back to the Legislature in the annual bill intended to correct clerical errors or other unintended, minor problems in the massive budget bill.

“I knew we would get another whack at it, and this is where we are at,” Timberlake said. “I can’t believe … that this is what we are here talking about.”

The House voted 68-47 to approve the bill, but that margin is short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to have the bill take immediate effect as an “emergency measure” or override a veto from LePage. Afterwards, Democratic leaders blasted House Republicans and accused them of preventing the adjournment of the special session.

“It’s sad that House Republicans believe the only way they can win the election is by playing dirty, D.C.-style politics and blocking Maine citizens’ Clean Elections contributions from being released,” Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said in a statement. “It’s clear they believe gutting the Clean Elections system will give them a fundraising advantage so they can be free to raise money from corporations and the special interests that fund their campaigns. Fortunately for the people of Maine, as has been proven time and time again, money isn’t everything in politics.”

Wayne’s memo Tuesday made clear the clean elections fund would become insolvent without the typographical fix. Commissioners will have to decide Wednesday how they want to distribute the remaining funds. They could decide to provide all eligible candidates with just 28 percent of what they would be entitled to, or could formulate another distribution of funds.

Standing to lose the most is State Treasurer Hayes, an independent candidate for governor who could be eligible for up to $350,000 in clean election funds based on qualifying matching $5 contributions. State Senate candidates eligible for maximum amounts of $40,000 are also likely to feel the squeeze of the budget drafting error if it is left unfixed.

Under the clean elections law approved by voters more than 20 years ago, candidates for the Legislature and governor can receive money to run their campaigns in exchange for forgoing most private contributions. Public campaign financing is billed as a way to reduce the influence of big-money special interests while allowing candidates more time to discuss issues with voters rather than ask for donations.

In the 2018 elections, House candidates running in contested races can receive a total of $7,600 for their primary and general election campaigns, and Maine Senate candidates can receive $30,400. Gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, can receive between $800,000 and $1 million each.

Because there is no limit on how much money a privately financed candidate can raise or spend, the Clean Election Act also allows publicly financed candidates to qualify for “supplemental payments” through the November election. Candidates for governor, for instance, can receive an additional $1.4 million in public campaign financing by demonstrating their community support with small-dollar “qualifying contributions.”

It’s those supplemental payments that are now in doubt.

In the budget bill passed last year after a three-day government shutdown, lawmakers bumped up the timing of a $3 million transfer to the clean elections fund to ensure the program had sufficient money to operate during the 2018 elections. But language in that bill inadvertently prohibits the state ethics commission from actually handing out the money to campaigns after July 1.

 

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