AUGUSTA — After several hours of debate and defeated amendments, lawmakers in the state Senate on Thursday approved a change to the Maine Clean Election Act that opponents say threatens the future of the program.
On the largely party-line vote dominated by the Republican majority, senators voted 18-15 to approve the so-called "do-nothing" option that simply conforms the citizen-enacted campaign-finance law with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prevents publicly funded candidates from receiving additional funds to combat outside spending or well-heeled opponents.
The vote followed more than two hours of debate and seven amendments. At times, it appeared Republicans and Democrats were staging a standoff, as both sides offered amendments that had little chance of bipartisan approval.
The outcome sets up another showdown in the House of Representatives, where the rhetoric is expected to continue. Republicans argue that the citizen-enacted law has become expensive and has done little to prevent outside interests from influencing elections. Democrats will attempt to show that the GOP is gutting a law in an effort to preserve the Republican majority.
The citizen group that helped bring the law to voters in 1996 has promised that voters will have the last word if the Legislature moves to weaken a system that continues to receive public support. Representatives for the group, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, have indicated they'd consider another citizen initiative to repair the law if lawmakers dismantle it.
"At a time when people are more concerned than ever about the corrupting role that money plays in our elections and government, the Senate has moved in the wrong direction," said Andrew Bossie of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
He added, "Maine people want to continue to move forward, not backward, in the fight against money in politics, and today the Maine Senate failed the people they represent."
The debate centers on the amount of money legislative Clean Election candidates can receive and a so-called "requalifying option." The latter would allow candidates to earn additional money beyond the program's upfront disbursement during a competitive race by collecting $5 donations.
Republicans have rejected all requalifying proposals, saying they skirt the court ruling against matching funds. The ruling effectively prohibited publicly financed candidates from automatically receiving more funds if their opponent or an outside group spent more on the race.
Two amendments sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would have increased the initial disbursement. Each amendment was defeated by a wide margin.
Democrats opposed Katz's amendments because they said the absence of the so-called requalifying option would hurt some candidates in competitive races and ultimately the viability of the clean election program.
The "do-nothing" bill that conformed the Clean Election law with the court decision gives Clean Election candidates one upfront disbursement of campaign funds — $3,937 for House candidates; $18,124 for Senate candidates.
One of Katz's amendments would have increased those amounts to $6,500 for House candidates and $29,000 for Senate candidates. The amendment also would have increased the amount of private seed money candidates could collect when starting up their campaigns.
The limit on individual seed money donations is $100.
The measure was defeated by Democrats and Republicans. The latter opposed it because they did not want the Clean Election program to disburse more money beyond the upfront allocation.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the seed money went against the spirit of the law because candidates could gather more $100 in private donations, presumably from special-interest groups.
"This bill is a missed opportunity," Bartlett said, adding that Mainers had spoken loud and clear against private money in politics when citizens ratified the Clean Election law in 1999.
Democrats also argued that Republicans had resisted strengthening the law because they were protecting their majority in the Legislature. The program is designed to give challengers a fighting chance against incumbents.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, called the Republican plan an "incumbent protection plan."
Republicans rejected those arguments. Many said they supported the law, but that the re-qualifying option skirted the court decision while increasing the cost of the program.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, also dismissed arguments that increasing the seed money would make candidates vulnerable to corporate interests.
"If you can be bought for $100, then shame on you," Plowman said.
Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, who has run as a Clean Election candidate, said candidates knew what they were getting into when they enrolled in the program.
Saviello also rejected the idea that money was the sole determining factor in elections.
"Nothing beats getting out there, knocking on doors," Saviello said.
Republicans and Democrats have made heavy use of the Maine Clean Election Act. Both parties see it as a recruitment tool for candidates who might be averse to asking constituents for campaign money.
Nearly 80 percent of the legislators elected in 2010 ran as Clean Election candidates.