When the Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA) was passed in 1996, it had noble intentions. Maine has a long history of a citizen legislature, and the law aimed to help ordinary people with no political experience run for office. It was also supposed to make races more competitive and reduce the influence of private donors in Maine elections.
However, 20 years have passed, and none of these goals have been achieved. Now, the Maine Legislature is considering a bill, LD 126, which would save Maine taxpayers a sizeable amount of their hard-earned money from being spent on elections. The bill, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), would decrease the amount of money available to candidates under the MCEA by one-third. This would provide tax relief for working Mainers while still acknowledging the will of the voters who expanded the MCEA program through Question 1 in 2015.
There are several reasons this change is a sound policy choice for Maine.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center analyzed the composition of the Maine House of Representatives from 1996, before the MCEA was enacted, to 2016, and the evidence against taxpayer funded elections is overwhelming.
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.
In 2016, House candidates returned $114,410 to the Clean Elections fund, and Senate candidates returned $155,621. While this may bust the “stereotype that politicians are spendthrifts” as MCEA proponents claim, it’s clear the program is allocating more money than is needed for Clean Elections candidates to run their campaigns, and this money is being collected from Maine taxpayers.
University of Maine Professor Richard Powell conducted a comprehensive study of the MCEA in 2010 that found “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 reason for this, according to Powell, is because “outside money continues to pour into the system” via independent expenditures. The MCEA program hasn’t reduced outside influence in our political system, it has only enticed donors to make independent expenditures rather than direct contributions to candidates.
From 2000 to 2014, independent expenditures on legislative races in Maine, excluding gubernatorial candidates, increased more than 23-fold, according to data collected by the Maine Ethics Commission. Between 2014 and 2016, after the implementation of Question 1 in 2015 and expansion of the MCEA, independent expenditures increased by 45 percent and more than $1 million. Independent spending in legislative races in Maine has increased steadily since 2000.
All of this spending on elections comes at a cost. Since 2000, Maine has distributed more than $30 million to MCEA-qualified candidates, $22 million of that total being spent on legislative races alone. That’s enough to give a $374 tax cut to every Maine household on food stamps or eliminate the income tax for 80 percent of k-12 public school teachers for one year. This money could be used to reduce waitlists for disabled Medicaid patients, address the opiate crisis, or provide tax relief to hardworking Mainers.
LD 126 would reduce public spending on legislative races by roughly $1.1 million per biennium and still allow candidates to qualify for substantially more funds than they received before the passage of Question 1 in 2015.
When voters passed Question 1, it effectively tripled the amount of money available to Clean Elections candidates. Under LD 126, House candidates could still receive $10,000 for contested general elections depending on the number of additional qualifying contributions submitted. Senate candidates could still receive $40,000. The average MCEA-qualified Senate candidate received just over $25,000 in 2014.
These distributions are substantially more than candidates received before Question 1’s passage.
Everyone in Maine wants clean and fair elections. LD 126 is one step Maine can take to save taxpayer dollars and still honor the will of Maine voters.