AUGUSTA — State lawmakers Tuesday failed to complete a deal designed to ensure that Maine's clean elections law remains viable for legislative candidates.
Negotiations stalled on the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee after lawmakers failed to agree on how much taxpayer funding should support publicly financed candidates.
The impasse followed calls to quickly amend the Maine Clean Election Act to conform with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court struck down a provision designed to help publicly financed candidates compete with well-heeled opponents and limit the influence of outside interest groups.
Lawmakers on the panel had hoped to reach a deal that the Legislature could approve when it reconvenes in January to give 2012 legislative candidates time to adjust to the new rules.
Tuesday's impasse suggests Republicans could be facing pressure to simply repeal the now-unconstitutional matching funds portion of the act, and nothing else. Advocates for the clean election law say that would make the program unattractive to candidates and effectively kill the program.
Dan Billings, chief legal counsel for Gov. Paul LePage, said the administration was not advocating for a particular proposal. However, Billings said lawmakers should strongly consider doing nothing rather than considering proposals that could cost more than the $3.3 million budgeted for clean elections in 2012.
Billings also took issue with cost estimates generated by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices for two Maine Clean Election Act proposals under consideration by the panel. He said the estimates were "just guesses." After Tuesday's public hearing, he suggested that some ethics commission employees may have an "institutional bias" because their jobs were created to administer the law.
During the hearing, Billings said that those who created the law had crafted it in such a way that publicly financed candidates had an edge over those running traditional campaigns.
Advocates for clean elections are quick to note that the program has been used by more than 80 percent of legislative candidates in both parties. Billings, a Republican operative who has recruited and advised candidates, said the figure was misleading. He said he often told candidates to "run clean" for pragmatic reasons.
To what extent Billings' statements are factoring into the GOP's deliberations is unclear. The administration has not overtly advocated for the repeal of the law. However, it has supported limiting the law and exempting from it gubernatorial candidates. It also advocated for a measure that doubles the individual, private campaign contribution limit for gubernatorial candidates.
Some Republicans have supported proposals to eliminate the act. Democrats said those bills failed because they believe the public overwhelmingly supports clean elections.
"What's clear to me is that there's always been a consensus, both with the voters in the state and candidates who use the system, to take special interest out of politics," said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. "You do that by having a public funding option that allows you to run a campaign."
Advocates for the act say that killing the law outright is not politically viable.
On Tuesday, Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, co-chairwoman of the Veterans Committee, said negotiations stalled when the two sides couldn't settle on the amount of money to give to clean election candidates.
The panel considered three proposals on Tuesday. The first would have allowed clean election House candidates to receive a maximum of $7,716 and Senate candidates to receive $33,617 in public funds. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worried that the Senate limit was too low for competitive races.
The second proposal would have increased the maximums to $11,500 for House candidates and $55,000 for Senate candidates.
Republicans appeared to lean toward the first plan, while Democrats supported the second.
Carey introduced a third plan, which drew a tepid response from the panel.
Farnham said it's possible a hybrid of the proposals could emerge. But, she said, "No matter which proposal comes, it’s going to be about the money."
Farnham said further action on the proposals likely won't take place until later this month when the legislative leadership meets to approve legislation for the January session.