Court says Maine Municipal Association can spend on campaigns

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PORTLAND — The Maine Municipal Association claimed legal victory Tuesday after a Superior Court justice ruled in the association’s favor in a lawsuit filed by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center in 2010.

An 18-page ruling issued in Kennebec County Superior Court seems to have closed the door on the case that accused the MMA of violating the First Amendment rights of some citizens by being politically active and spending money to participate in five statewide citizen-initiative campaigns between 2003 and 2009.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center claims raised questions about expenditures of public funds and MMA’s corporate charter.

The citizen initiatives included two ballot questions known as the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR 1 and TABOR 2, which would have limited the government’s ability to increase budgets and raise taxes in a variety of ways.

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The measures, both defeated at the polls, were launched by conservative groups hoping to limit government spending to inflation indexes, as well as population growth, in an attempt to curb property tax increases.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center complaint suffered its first blow in 2013 when a federal judge dismissed most of the claims made against the MMA in a federal suit filed in June 2010.

In his 56-page decision, federal Judge John Woodcock said the MMA’s participation in the political campaigns was allowed under the “government speech doctrine” and noted that the Maine Heritage Policy Center had a number of other avenues to pursue its advocacy against MMA and its political agenda, including in state court and through political activity.

Monday’s ruling by state Justice Michaela Murphy was the result of two parts of the federal suit that were specific to state law being passed back to the state court for rulings.

Murphy dismissed the two remaining state law counts and denied the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s request to enjoin MMA from being involved in future citizen-initiative campaigns, or otherwise limiting MMA’s advocacy activities, according to a release issued by MMA.

Eric Conrad, a spokesman for MMA, said Tuesday the decision was vindication of the association’s long-standing role as an advocate for town and city government.

MMA has long maintained lobbyists at the state Legislature, who work on behalf of the association’s municipal membership.

Conrad said the effect of a statewide ballot was the same as that of a law being enacted by the Legislature, so the association’s role was essentially the same when it reached out directly to the public to oppose or support ballot measures.

The thrust of the Maine Heritage Policy Center complaint was that cities and towns use taxpayer money to pay dues to members of the MMA and that the MMA, in turn, used those funds to lobby for or against policy changes that would not be supported by all taxpayers.

The case suggested that those citizens who were not in agreement with the MMA were having their rights suppressed, arguably with the very taxes they were required to pay to local government.

MMA Executive Director Christopher G. Lockwood praised the ruling Tuesday as vindication that MMA’s advocacy activities are appropriate and in recognition of MMA’s role to represent the common interests of Maine’s municipal governments.

“Advocacy was why the Maine Municipal Association was formed 78 years ago,” Lockwood said in a prepared statement. “We can’t sit idly by while proposals with serious ramifications for Maine’s towns and cities are brought before the Legislature, nor can we watch from the sidelines when equally significant proposals are brought before the state electorate for adoption through citizen initiative.”

Matthew Gagnon, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said his organization was obviously disappointed and “strenuously disagreed” with Murphy’s ruling.

“At the most basic level, the Maine Municipal Association makes use of taxpayer dollars to conduct electioneering,” Gagnon said, also in a prepared statement. “As an instrument of government, their contribution to and participation in political activities are illegal government expenditures.”

Gagnon said his organization did not believe the ” … decision is grounded in either the spirit or the letter of the law, and are currently evaluating how best to move forward to rein in this improper use of taxpayer funds.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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