Is Maine's Clean Election law in danger?

Posted Wednesday, June 29, 2011 in News

Is Maine's Clean Election law in danger?

by Gina Hamilton

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of an Arizona system for public financing of political campaigns – a system based on Maine's Clean Election law.

In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the high court tossed out a key provision: one that gives "clean" candidates extra funding if they are outspent by traditionally funded candidates. In its split decision, the court found that the matching funds provision of Arizona's law impinges on the free speech of privately funded candidates.

This was not a surprise to most court observers in Maine, since the Supreme Court had issued a series of progressively more conservative rulings regarding campaign-finance reform in the last session and in this one.

The Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA) established a voluntary program of full public financing of political campaigns for candidates running for governor, state senator and state representative. Maine voters passed the MCEA as a citizen initiative in 1996.

Candidates who choose to participate may accept very limited private contributions at the beginning of their campaigns. To become eligible, candidates must demonstrate community support through collecting a minimum number of checks or money orders of $5 or more made payable to the Maine Clean Election Fund. After a candidate begins to receive MCEA funds from the state, he or she cannot accept private contributions, and almost all goods and services received must be paid for with MCEA funds.

Jonathan Wayne, of the Maine Ethics Commission, said that until fall, it is unknown what shape the future Clean Election Law will take.  "The Legislature has agreed to study the issue and report back to the Commission in the fall," he said. "We've anticipated this ruling, and haven't been waiting for it to begin working on the problem."

Clean elections funding has been integral to Maine's election system. More than 80 percent of Maine lawmakers run as publicly financed candidates, and matching funds account for roughly 24 percent of all Clean Election money spent by candidates in legislative races.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree decried Monday's ruling. “The court has ruled in favor of special interests by throwing out a key component of a Clean Elections system that has been effective at leveling the playing field and reducing the influence of campaign contributions,” Pingree said on Monday. “Unfortunately today’s Supreme Court decision tips the field back toward outside groups with deep pockets.”

Pingree says she’s hopeful that Maine’s Clean Election law will be amended and kept in force.
 
“The Legislature is moving in the right direction to at least consider any changes necessary to make the Maine law comply with the Supreme Court decisions. We’ve had Clean Elections for a decade. Maine people know it works and they don’t want to give it up,” Pingree said.
 
The Legislature is considering a bill this year that would require a legislative committee to study any necessary changes to keep Maine’s Clean Election system in compliance with Supreme Court decisions. The bill has won preliminary approval in both the House and Senate.
 
In Congress, Pingree has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow candidates to run for Congress using public funding and limits campaign contributions to $100. Pingree’s bill has already attracted 68 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. Anticipating Monday’s Supreme Court decision, the bill was specifically written so as not to be affected by the court's decision.

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