It was supposed to “get big money out of Maine politics.” Now, twelve years after it began, the Maine clean elections system has cost Maine taxpayers a total of $23 million public dollars. Many legislators run their campaigns with public funds, and then once elected, build a war chest of money with donations to the Political Action Committees (PACs) they control.
There are 34 current legislators who ran their campaigns with public money doled out by the clean elections system who now control PACs. Those legislators spent a combined total of $461,501 public dollars to run political campaigns in 2010 and 2011, and in that same time, have raised a total of $978,835 for their PACs to spend on candidates for office and political activities of their choosing.
Of the 34 legislators who ran with public funds as candidates and now control PACs, 13 are Republican legislators, with PAC money raised in 2010 and 2011 totaling $341,363. The remaining 21 legislators are Democrats, and have received PAC money totaling $637,471 in 2010 and 2011. Traditionally, Democrats have been stronger advocates of the clean election system.
A Political Action Committee, described in part by the Maine Ethics Commission website as “any separate or segregated fund established by any corporation, membership organization, cooperative or labor or other organization whose purpose is to initiate or influence a campaign,” is often used by legislators who are interested in running for, or currently hold, a legislative leadership position. Setting up a “leadership PAC” can allow legislators to financially assist other candidates for the legislature, or contribute to other candidates or causes.
Many of the expenditures made from these PACs are directed to party campaign committees. For instance, Democrat Senator Justin Alfond ran as a clean elections candidate, using tax dollars, and sent a total of $25,000 from his PAC to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee this past December. Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, who controls his own PAC, gave $10,000 to the Maine Senate Republican Majority in late December 2011.
The question is – if these folks are capable of raising this kind of money privately, more than double what it cost to fund their legislative races, why are Maine taxpayers footing the bill for their campaigns?
Maine Clean Elections Act
The Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA) was passed by Maine voters in 1996, with the promise that it would help keep big money out of politics. The campaign to make clean elections the law of the land in Maine was pushed for by unions and progressive groups, including the Maine AFL-CIO, Maine People’s Alliance, Maine Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and Peace Action Maine.
The first election in which candidates utilized the clean elections system was held in 2000. Since then, the number of legislators that have utilized clean elections has increased, a point that supporters of MCEA point to as success for the system. In 2010, 77% of all legislative candidates used clean elections, down from a program high of 81% in 2008.
One of the likely reasons for the high utilization is that it’s free for the candidate. The MCEA provides public dollars to candidates for the legislature, as well as gubernatorial candidates. To qualify for the public funds, the candidate must collect $5 “qualifying contributions” from individuals. The number of checks to qualify for the house is 60, for the senate 175 and to run for Governor, the candidate must collect 3,250 checks. The candidate can also raise a very small amount of “seed money,” limited to $500 for house candidates, $1,500 for senate and $200,000 for clean elections candidates for Governor.
The amount of public funds each candidate receives varies by race as well. For a House race, a candidate initially receives $5,000 for the general election, while a Senate candidate receives $25,000. A gubernatorial candidate receives a staggering $400,000 in public funding for a primary and an additional $600,000 for the general election. If a legislative candidate is running unopposed, those values decrease significantly. If there is unspent money at the end of the campaign, it must be returned to the clean elections system.
The initial distribution amounts do not include matching funds. A key part of the MCEA law, the matching funds provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2011.
The matching funds provision allowed more public money to flow to a candidate when an outside group contributes some type of support to their opponent’s campaign, or if their opponent runs as a privately financed candidate and raises more money than the clean elections candidate is originally allotted. This was ruled a violation of free speech by the Supreme Court, who stated that it “chilled” the free speech of someone interested in supporting a candidate.
Without the matching funds provision, candidates may be less motivated to run as a clean elections candidate, knowing that if their opponent raises more than them, they cannot maintain the same level of spending via their public financing alone.
One point that opponents of clean elections have made is that by using tax dollars to fund candidates, taxpayers are contributing financially to the campaign of candidates they may not support. Also, they are potentially funding the losing candidate. For instance, in this past year’s gubernatorial race, Maine taxpayers funded the losing race of former Democrat senate leader Libby Mitchell. Mitchell spent $1,792,550 to garner 18% of the vote in the election.
The clean elections system faces a rocky future. The Supreme Court ruling makes it less appealing to take public money to run for office and Democrats and Republicans in the legislature are in disagreement about how to proceed with the system. Republicans have brought forward LD 1774, a bill that would simply strike the matching funds portion from the law and move forward with the status quo, likely making the clean election option less popular with candidates.
Some Democrats have pushed for other options that would increase the total amount of the initial disbursement candidates receive, potentially depending on the number of qualifying checks they collect.
And some are advocating for the end of clean elections completely. The elimination option may suit weary taxpayers the best, particularly considering the current budget woes the state faces.