The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is following the money, and we're concerned about what it's found.
For several months, the commission has been investigating Maine Leads, the public policy advocacy group that played a critical role in getting two questions before Maine voters this November — one to slash the excise tax and promote hybrid car buying, and the tax-and-spending limiting initiative nicknamed the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights II."
Maine Leads is a self-described "do-tank," as opposed to think-tank, according to commission documents. It lists among its missions being a "citizen initiative factory," plus other duties typical of political advocacy groups: media relations, grassroots organizing, legislative lobbying, etc.
What's atypical about Maine Leads, though, is it directly financed signature-gathering. It paid $160,000 to the company that circulated petitions for three questions — the two taxation ballots, and a health care question that failed to be certified. (And was the best of the lot, in our opinion.)
Usually, financing the signature-gathering is done by political action committees, or PACs, the regulated entities registered as express advocates or opponents of a electoral issue. (For example: Stand for Marriage Maine, the PAC for repealing same-sex marriage in Maine, paid National Petition Management of Michigan almost $250,000 for signature-gathering. In 2008, Fed Up With Taxes, the PAC for repealing beverage taxes, paid this same firm for signatures too.)
Maine Leads, in fact, also contributed $75,000 to the PACs that supported the three ballot questions, which in turn, paid to gather signatures.
Those PACs had to file detailed statements with the ethics commission, describing where their funding is from and how it is spent. Maine Leads, however, has not, by claiming its overall mission, purpose and activities are different than a PAC, and therefore PAC disclosures do not apply.
The staff of the commission, in a memo released in advance of its meeting Tuesday, has said Maine Leads' claim that it shouldn't file disclosures is contrary to the intent of the state's laws on campaign finance. The commission is set to decide this matter on Oct. 8.
Whether Maine Leads is a legal PAC, or its close cousin the "ballot question committee," for these questions this year is immaterial. The ballot for November is set. The real concern is opaqueness of Leads' finances which, according to commission documents, was largely derived from unnamed national nonprofits.
Voters and citizens should know who is funding political campaigns; as the ethics commission staff notes, this is the intent of the laws regarding PACs and campaign finance in general: To ensure clear lines are drawn between the sources of political dollars and how they are spent.
In Maine Leads' case, its funding sources are unclear and unreported, despite the group's significant financial support for signature-gathering for three ballot initiatives. The public should know which sponsors allowed Maine Leads to fund this activity.
Maine's laws on PACs have been consistent targets for reformers, through installing contribution limits (Maine is alone in New England in not having them) and quelling leadership PACs, which legislators use — even if they receive public campaign funding — to solicit private funds.
Yet reforms have been stymied, likely because the advantages for policymakers are greater in system with vagary and loopholes. We're unsure whether even the stiffest reforms will be effective, as money always seems to find its way into the political system. The counterbalance is transparency in reporting and preventing the circumvention of the system.
This is the crux of the Maine Leads investigation. As a political advocate, the group is free to fund-raise and finance the activities of its choosing. When it comes to funding signature-gathering, however, voters should know who is bankrolling it.
This is the intent of Maine's campaign finance laws, and the standard which should apply.