Inside Augusta

Government Oversight Committee endorses report to clean up Maine ballot initiatives

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During its August 11 meeting, the Government Oversight Committee (GOC) voted unanimously to endorse a report on the citizen initiative and people’s veto processes produced by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA). The GOC referred the report to the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs to consider legislation addressing opportunities for improvement of the system in future sessions of the legislature.

The report was the result of a review assigned to OPEGA by the 128th Legislature’s GOC. OPEGA had previously conducted limited research related to the 2017 citizen initiative that asked voters to approve a casino in York County.

In the report, OPEGA looked at the trends in activity and characteristics of citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes over time, the geographic distribution of signatures collected for citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes, the extent to which citizen initiatives that qualified for the ballot involved policies previously considered by the legislature, as well as opportunities to improve the use of resources in citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes efforts and improve transparency and accountability of the process.

The report identified eight areas where citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes could potentially be improved. 

Among these were several opportunities for improving transparency and accountability in the signature collection and validation process, as well as improving the transparency and effectiveness of data collected on petition organizers.

Speaking during the meeting’s public comment period, president of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, Jonathan Wayne, addressed some of the reforms identified in the report and indicated the ethics commission intends to take administrative steps to make improvements.

Wayne praised the quality of the data in the OPEGA report and stated it had inspired the commission to create its own report to provide better access to data related to the number of contributors to ballot questions, as well as the total amount of money spent by ballot question committees (BQC).

Wayne also addressed several of the opportunities for improvement identified in the report related to the financing of political campaigns.

The OPEGA report flagged the lack of an expenditure category for expenses related to paid signature gathering in the ethics commission’s online e-filing system as an area of potential improvement. According to data in the report, expenditures for paid signature gathering are often filed by political committees in one of four campaign expenditure categories, and are not always identified as such in the report’s filed for describing an expenditure. This, the report states, makes it difficult for both the ethics commission and the public to accurately identify paid signature gathering expenses.

Wayne noted the commission intends to add a new expenditure type for petition expenses to the state’s campaign finance system, which would make paid signature gathering more easily searchable.

Another issue highlighted by the OPEGA report involves the double-counting of contributions made between organizations that support or oppose a particular ballot measure, such as political action committees (PACs) and BQCs. The committee reports this results in overstated totals in the amount of money committees spend on direct expenditures.

Affiliated political groups, BQCs and PACs can support each other during campaigns through cash and in-kind contributions. Currently, when one committee makes a donation to another committee, that donation is counted in the campaign finance reporting system as an expenditure made by the committee from which it was donated. It is counted again as an expenditure when the committee to which it was donated spends it. That means the same sum of money is counted twice in direct expenditure reports, which leads to overinflation of committees’ total spending. 

In its report, OPEGA identified 13 cases where money was transferred between committees and found that “the transfers in total expenditures overstated direct expenditures in support or opposition to an initiative from 1.5% to 48.1%.”

Maine Policy Institute previously identified the double-counting of direct expenditures as an issue in Maine’s ballot initiative process. A report released in August 2018 identified nearly $1.2 million in campaign-to-campaign contributions that had been double-counted in data related to Maine’s ballot question committees collected by FollowTheMoney.org in 2016.

The OPEGA report did not present a specific solution to the problem of double-counting. It identified better clarifying the reporting totals and accounting for committee-to-committee transfers differently as potential remedies.

Speaking during the public comment period, Wayne stated that the ethics commission intends to take administrative action to better delineate direct contributions made between campaigns.

Asked for further comment, Wayne stated that the ethics commission is in the beginning stages of a report that will put together spending totals for each ballot question and that the commission will quantify direct contributions between committees as they gather data. Once data collection is finished, the ethics commission will consider how to make the reporting clearer to the public.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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