Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland) has taken more than $23,000 from taxpayers under Maine’s Clean Election Act — despite being personally wealthy as the result of an inheritance stemming from his grandfather Harold Alfond’s sale of Dexter Shoe Co.
According to Alfond’s campaign finance report filed last week, the Democratic leader has raised $500 in seed money contributions — a requirement under the law — and has received a total of $23,580.
Alfond’s not the only upper-class candidate looking to taxpayers to foot the bill for his campaign. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz (R-Kennebec), an Augusta-based attorney, is also running a taxpayer-funded campaign. And there are probably more examples on both sides of the political spectrum of candidates who could likely stomach the costs of print mailers and advertisements, but who are instead taking taxpayer money.
How have Maine taxpayers ended up footing the bill for wealthy politicians?
Created by the State Legislature in 1995, the Maine Clean Elections Act first started financing campaigns for elected office in 2000. Since its implementation, candidates for state office have had the option to fund themselves traditionally or to enroll in MCEA and accept taxpayer funding. In order to become eligible for taxpayer funding, a candidate must first demonstrate support by raising a predetermined amount of “seed money contributions” in the form of small itemized donations.
Though Maine was a leader in the public campaign financing sphere, other states have also adopted similar laws. Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Massachusetts all have some form of public campaign finance law, as do a handful of municipalities in the U.S.
In Maine, the amount of taxpayer money a politician can receive for their campaign varies according to which office they are seeking. For example, candidates for a contested state representative seat get $1,429 for the primary election and $4,724 for the general election. On the senate side, candidates in contested races get $7,359 for the primary and $21,749 for the general. The disbursed funds are considerably less in uncontested races.
Seed money requirements also vary according to the office sought. For example, a candidate for state senate must receive donations from 175 registered voters, while candidates for state representative must receive at least 60 donations for registered voters. Seed money contributions must come from within a candidate’s electoral district.
Participation in the program has grown steadily over the last decade and a half. In 2000, for example, just 33 percent of candidates ran taxpayer-financed campaigns. But by 2008 that participation rate peaked at 81 percent. In the 125th Legislature, 80 percent of lawmakers ran taxpayer-funded campaigns.
In 2010, the state dispensed a total of $6.3 million under the MCEA program — $3.3 million for legislative races and $2.9 million for the gubernatorial race.
Overall, participation in the program this year tends to be stronger among Democratic and independent candidates.
On the Republican side, 48 of 187 state legislature candidates – or 26 percent – have accepted taxpayer funding. On the Democratic side, 135 of 176 legislative candidates – or 77 percent – have accepted taxpayer funding. Twenty-one of 31 candidates for state senate or state representative enrolled in either the Green Independent Part or no party at all have also applied for taxpayer funding.
The goal of the MCEA program is ostensibly to off-set the influence of private donations to political candidates. Supporters also believe the program helps newcomers gain entry into Maine’s elected offices.
The idea is that if candidates cannot solicit and accept donations from lobbyists and corporate sources — or do not have to rely exclusively on such donations — then their votes will not be influenced by campaign cash. Maine state law limits individual contributions to candidates for state legislature to a total of $750 — $375 for the primary election and $375 for the general.
Candidates who accept MCEA funding are prohibited from accepting private donations or spending their own money on their campaigns. But there are many problematic loopholes in the law which allow for private campaign cash to touch their hands nonetheless. The most significant of these loopholes in the so-called leadership political action committee (PAC).
Leadership PACs allow lawmakers to accept donations from lobbyists. While they can’t spend money from their leadership PAC on their own candidacy, the can use the funds to help out allied politicians. Critics believe this loophole is problematic because it allows politicians who have foregone private financing to continue soliciting — and perhaps be influenced by — private cash.
Alfond, for example, runs the Alfond Business, Community & Democracy PAC, which has raised more than $41,200 this year, including donations from corporate giants AstraZeneca and PhRMA. The lion’s share of that campaign cash ($18,000) was donated in June to the Maine Democratic State Committee, which this month has financed a series of controversial and bizarre mailers attacking GOP candidates.