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Maine Vote Offers Momentum for Keeping Elections Clean

In Maine on Tuesday, voters strengthened the public campaign financing system that became a model for other states and helped the legislature become the nation's most blue-collar.

A Maine Citizens for Clean Election rally.
(AP/Glenn Adams)
This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

On Tuesday, Maine voters decided to increase the public campaign funds for gubernatorial and state legislative races that some say help maintain the working-class character of the legislature and keep big, private money out of politics. 

With 529 of 583 precincts reporting, about 55 percent of voters approved the measure. It needed a simple majority to pass.   

Advocates of the measure included Maine's League of Women Voters, U.S. Sen. Angus King, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and a collection of state lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties. The state's largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, also endorsed the measure in an editorial last year. One of the most vocal supporters was state Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican.

"I don’t have any qualms with candidates who are privately funded," Katz said before the election, "but particularly for younger people or people who don’t have [business] connections, this is a potential entry into the legislature."

Last year, the book White-Collar Government concluded Maine had the most blue-collar legislature in the country. Many of Katz's colleagues are school teachers and farmers, and he attributes this to an initiative passed by voters in 1996 that established a novel public campaign finance system branded "Clean Elections." The system allotted $2 million a year for state legislative and gubernatorial candidates who wanted to run without relying on large donations from private groups. To qualify for the taxpayer-backed war chest, candidates had to collect small contributions from individuals until they hit a certain fundraising threshold -- a total of $500 for a house candidate, $1,500 for a senate candidate and $200,000 for a gubernatorial candidate.

After meeting the threshold, candidates would receive an initial distribution of public funds, which range from $486 for a house candidate running in an uncontested primary to $7,177 for a senate candidate running in a contested general election. Gubernatorial candidates got either $200,000 or $400,000 in a primary, depending on whether they faced an opponent, and $600,000 in a general election. 

Since the system started operating in 2000, an increasing number of candidates -- even in the high-profile races for governor -- came to rely on public financing. At its peak in the 2006 and 2008 elections, 81 percent of legislative candidates opted to use public financing for their campaigns. The system even caught the eye of public officials and advocacy groups in other parts of the country, and several states, including Arizona, Connecticut and North Carolina, later modeled their own public financing program after Maine’s.

But four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the state's law in a ruling on two consolidated cases about a similar public financing system in Arizona. Until that point, both states ensured that candidates relying on public funds didn't find themselves at a significant fundraising disadvantage by allowing publicly financed candidates to tap into an additional matching fund when privately financed candidates started to outspend them. In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down Arizona's matching provisions. A narrow 5-4 majority concluded that the matching subsidy would discourage self-financed candidates, and outside groups that support them, from campaigning beyond the point where their spending triggered the public match. Ultimately, they would probably campaign less and, in that way, the match could chill free speech. The court weighed the potential benefits of keeping corruption out of the political system, but decided that the evidence was too thin to substantially burden a constitutional right.

While much of Maine's public financing system remained intact, the U.S. District Court of Maine struck down the matching provisions, and in 2012, Gov. Paul LePage signed a law that officially eliminated them. Since then, fewer candidates used public funding. Last year, for example, about 51 percent of Maine's legislative candidates tapped into the public money. While the initial distributions were still enough for uncontested races, candidates in close elections were choosing not to rely on the limited public funds that no longer come with later infusions of matching subsidies. The November ballot measure, however, strengthens the system again by increasing available funding in the form of bigger upfront distributions.


State Sen. Roger Katz is one of the measure's most vocal supporters. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

Katz noted that the law has benefited Republican candidates as much as Democrats and "it ought to be a nonpartisan proposal ... for every corporation that may give, there is a labor union that is giving as much or more." To Katz's point, in 2010, more Republican candidates for state senate relied on public financing than Democratic candidates. The Maine Democratic party endorsed the measure but the state Republican party didn't taken a position on it. 

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a nonprofit advocating for the measure, believes voters' approval of the measure will help other states minimize the role that large financial contributions from organized groups have on the political process. 

"My hope is that it provides people not in just Maine [but] across the country with a little more hope that we can do something about the overwhelming problem where big money calls the shots," he said.

In addition to adding to the pool of public money available to candidates, the measure also increases financial penalties for violating state election laws and forces political action committees to reveal their top three donors in advertisements or other communications for or against a candidate. 

A political action committee called "Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians" formed in opposition to the initiative and in the most recent quarterly finance report due Oct. 5, the group had collected $1,400 in contributions from eight people. A group of conservative state lawmakers oppose the measure, detailing their reasons on a Facebook page. Republican Gov. Paul LePage is also opposed to the effort.

While not an outright opponent, the Maine Chamber of Commerce also criticized the measure, saying it would set a dangerous precedent by allowing voters to decide complicated tax policy. More broadly, though, the chamber disagrees with the source of new funding, which would come from ending some tax incentives for businesses. The chamber and other critics of the measure couldn't cite specific tax breaks they would like to protect because the measure leaves that up to a legislative committee to decide after the election. The committee would prioritize tax breaks that produce "little or no demonstrated economic development benefit," as identified in the future by the legislature's nonpartisan auditing arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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