Clean elections imperiled by 'reform'

Posted Wednesday, April 4, 2012 in News

Clean elections imperiled by 'reform'

by Gina Hamilton

AUGUSTA — Maine's successful clean elections program has been imperiled by reforms that remove one of the key components: matching funds for clean candidates if traditional candidates outspend them in the waning days of the election cycle. 

LD 1774 removed all references of matching funds from the clean election law, a change needed in order to bring Maine into compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year. That decision ruled that matching funds — which are triggered when a privately funded candidate spends more money than a publicly funded candidate — were unconstitutional.

Without matching funds, a traditional candidate could spend significantly more than a clean elections one, which will give the edge to established politicians, especially incumbents. As a result of the court ruling, clean candidates now can receive only upfront public money, if they forgo private donations, that amounts to less than $4,000 for House races and about $18,000 for Senate races.

Many fear that these changes will do away with the public financing system altogether.

On March 29, Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1774 into law. Supporters of the Clean Election Act, a system approved by voters in 1996 to provide taxpayer money for legislative and gubernatorial elections, said the proposed $2.5 million cut would chip away at the program.

"The weakening of Clean Elections only means a bigger role for private special-interest money in our elections, and that is not what Maine people want," said Alison Smith, president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

However, others say that in a time when the state needs every dollar it gets, matching funds were not the best use of state money. Robert Nutting, speaker of the House, said that since the Clean Election Act took effect in 2000, Maine taxpayers spent about $23 million for the system. "That's money that could have been used for education, public safety, heating oil assistance and countless other purposes," he said. 

He pointed out that most people believe that the clean election fund pays these expenses, but in fact, 87 percent of the money spent in matching funds came from the general fund.

Still, it is undeniable that the clean election fund had a mitigating impact on big money in Maine elections, something both sides concede. 

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