Campaign finance reform has been getting an unusual amount of attention in Maine as of late. It’s unusual not because the state generally ignores the issue, but instead because – for the most part – Maine has adopted nearly all of the reforms that campaign finance advocates push nationally.

We’ve had publicly financed campaign funds available to all legislative candidates for decades now, we have strict donation limits for campaigns and we have quick, transparent reporting on campaign donations and expenditures. To be sure, there’s room for improvement – donations and campaign expenditures could be reported more quickly, thanks to the advent of online reporting – but by and large, Maine has the system that campaign finance reform proponents want.

There are two big areas where we could vastly improve, though: political action committees and the financing of ballot question campaigns. Paradoxically, clean elections and donation limits have empowered PACs and political parties, since they’re the ones that are now able to spend nearly unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. That means that the direction of campaigns is often taken away from the candidates themselves and handed over to leadership, since they’re barred from formally coordinating with any independent expenditures. That leaves the candidates beholden to the big donors for PACs and parties without having any influence over how the money is spent on their behalf. While this can be politically convenient at times, it’s created an unbalanced system, where big money has enormous influence.

Proposals are before the Legislature right now to curtail this influence, including bills to ban corporate donations to PACs and prevent foreign corporations from bankrolling referendum campaigns. Of course, the bill to ban corporate donations is sponsored by Democrats, who see these donations as a political threat to them. As it stands, that idea is less a true campaign finance reform than it is a blatant political power grab meant to stifle the opposition. It would be a more serious proposal if it also barred PAC donations from labor unions and nonprofits, but since that’s where so much of Democrats’ money comes from, it’s hard to see them really going after those sources with the same zeal.

Rather than just banning corporations, unions and nonprofits from donating to PACs, we ought to start out by imposing limits on their contributions. Statewide candidates can accept only $1,725 in donations from a single donor in both the primary and the general elections, for a total of $3,450 in a single cycle. That same donation limit ought to be applied to PACs, ballot question committees and party committees. That evens the playing field a bit with those entities in campaigns without completely hobbling them, as it prevents them from transferring enormous sums – at least at one time.

To be sure, they can still find a way to get the money there, by funneling it through other entities or individuals in various creative ways, but it’s an entirely reasonable limit established by current precedent. The current lack of a donation limit for these groups is totally nonsensical and completely unfair, both to candidates and the public at large. This wouldn’t be just a donation limit when these groups give money, but also when they receive funds, just as it is for candidates.

Another way to limit these entities is to begin taxing their donations. These groups pay taxes on goods and services that they use, just like everyone else, they essentially duck the income tax, because donations to them aren’t taxed. This makes sense for nonprofits that truly serve the public good, like educational institutions and land trusts, but it makes no sense whatsoever to exempt political action committees from taxation. PACs spend enormous sums of money to influence our elections – often in a way that’s corrosive to democracy – and the rest of society receives little, if any, benefit from them. So, let’s start taxing their donors, and see if that curtails some of their runaway spending, at least in the short run.

Although campaign finance reformers may like much of Maine’s system, by allowing PACs, party committees and ballot campaigns to spend limitlessly, we’ve created a completely unbalanced farce. If we’re going to continue to have clean elections and donation limits for candidates, we need to start reining in PACs and other groups as well. That would create a truly balanced system  that might actually begin to rein in big spending in Maine in a way that works within our constitutional democracy.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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