Commentary

Legislature Considering Changes to “Clean” Election Law

on

Under Maine Clean Elections Act, outside money continues to pour into the system through indirect independent expenditures. This is unacceptable.

click-here-take-action

Contact members on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee TODAY and urge them to support LD 126.

Although it is no secret that MHPC is not a supporter of the Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA), or taxpayer funded political campaigns, we acknowledge that the Maine people spoke through the ballot initiative process to create this program. We believe passage of LD 126 bill will save the taxpayers of Maine a considerable amount of their hard earned money, especially after the expansion of the program through Question 1 in 2015.

When the MCEA was passed in 1996, its objectives included helping ordinary people with no political experience run for office, making races more competitive, and reducing the influence of private donors in Maine elections.

Today, more than 20 years after the MCEA was enacted, these goals have not been accomplished.

Let’s start with perhaps the most basic justification behind the MCEA: allowing ordinary people to win public office without the backing of wealthy campaign contributors. The MHPC has analyzed trends in the composition of the Maine House of Representatives from 1996, before the MCEA took effect, to 2016:

Did the number of House members with no previous legislative experience increase? No.

Did the amount of cumulative legislative experience decline? No.

Did the number of House members born in Maine increase? No.

Did the number of House members representing the districts in which they were born increase? No.

It is simply not the case that the MCEA has increased the number of ordinary people with no legislative experience in office.

Another claim made in support of public campaign financing is that it levels the financial playing field between candidates and makes races more competitive. But according to a comprehensive 2010 study by Richard Powell at the University of Maine, “Neither house nor senate races have been contested at a statistically significant higher rate [and] neither incumbents’ average margin of victory nor their overall reelection rate has changed in a statistically significant way.” One major reason for this, according to Professor Powell, is that outside money continues to pour into the system” through indirect independent expenditures.

Which brings me to my third and final point: The data clearly show that the MCEA program has caused donors to shift from contributing directly to candidates to making independent expenditures on their behalf.

From 2000 to 2014, independent expenditures on legislative races — excluding gubernatorial candidates — increased more than 23-fold, according to data collected by the Maine Ethics Commission. And from 2014 to 2016, after the implementation of Question 1 and expansion of the MCEA, independent expenditures increased by 45 percent and by more than $1 million. In a report published in 2007, the Maine Ethics Commission acknowledged that “independent spending in legislative races has increased steadily since 2000.”

All this comes at a cost: Since 2000, more than 30 million taxpayer dollars have been distributed to MCEA-qualified candidates–more than $22 million to legislative candidates alone. That’s enough to give a $374 tax cut to every Maine household on food stamps or eliminate the income taxes for 80 percent of K-12 public school teachers in Maine for one year.

This bill would reduce public spending on legislative races by approximately $1.1 million per biennium. This money would be better used to reduce the waitlists for disabled Medicaid patients, address the opiate crisis in our state, or provide much-needed tax relief to struggling families.

It’s also important to note that this bill would still allow candidates to qualify for substantially more funds than they did before the passage of Question 1 in 2015. After Question 1 in 2015, the amount of money available to the candidates tripled. This did not correspond to a more level playing field, all this did was triple the amount of money paid to political consultants, sign makers, mail-houses, and robo-call vendors.

According to the Ethics Commission, a typical MCEA-qualified House candidate received about $5,700 for an uncontested primary and contested general election in 2014. Under this bill, that same candidate could receive over $10,000 depending on the number of additional qualifying contributions submitted. Likewise, a typical MCEA-qualified Senate candidate in 2014 received a little more than $25,000, according to the Ethics Commission. Under this bill, that same candidate could receive over $41,000. That is still a substantial increase over 2014 levels, and honors the increase in funding approved by voters in 2015, and is still more than enough money to run a competitive campaign.

Please join me in contacting members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee TODAY to urge them to stand up for Maine taxpayers by voting in support of LD 126.

About Mike Quatrano

Mike Quatrano is the Director of Civic Engagement at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, overseeing the MHPC's grassroots activist network and collaboration with the Maine Legislature.

Recommended for you

Comments