LEWISTON — Recent changes to the state’s public campaign financing laws are a mixed blessing, according to candidates trying to participate in the system.

Since the last gubernatorial campaign in 2006, the Legislature has made changes to the Maine Clean Election Act that make it more difficult to qualify but more rewarding for those who do.

Candidates seeking to run on the taxpayers’ dime are required to collect at least $40,000 in seed money from Maine donors, with individual donations capped at $100; previously, raising seed money was allowed but not required for candidates. They also must collect $5 donations from 3,250 individual donors, up from 2,500 in the previous gubernatorial cycle. But qualified candidates are now eligible for $400,000 during primaries and up to $1.2 million in funding if they make the general election, better positioning them to compete with privately or personally financed opponents.

“The changes directly addressed some of the most-often-heard complaints about the system — that it was too easy to qualify, and sort of paradoxically, that it didn’t give candidates enough money to run with,” said Alison Smith, co-chairwoman of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. “We want to make the system attractive to the most viable candidates in the race and address the funding components.”

Seven of the 16 candidates who have officially filed papers to run for governor have declared their intent to run under the public financing system.

State Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, ran as a clean election candidate during the 2006 gubernatorial race, losing to another publicly-financed candidate in the primary. He is running again in 2010, hoping to qualify for the public funds.

“The raising of the number of the $5 checks from 2,500 to 3,250 is nothing to sneeze at,” he said, adding that last time around he collected about 2,800. “I am a little disappointed they raised the number of the $5 checks. The 3,250, at some level it’s not really a test of broad-based support, it’s a test of your ability to stay organized and hassle people.”

Mills said he thought only he and Senate President Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, who also declared her intent to run as a clean election candidate, would be capable of meeting the new requirements.

Other candidates who say they intend on qualifying as clean election candidates include Democrat Donna Dion of Biddeford, Green Independents Patrick Quinlan of Gorham and Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor, and unenrolled candidates Alex Hammer of Bangor and John Whitcomb of Sidney.

Williams said she disagrees with some of the changes, calling the seed money requirement a “perversion” of a public system, but is optimistic about her chances for qualification.

“I am approaching having raised $15,000 from Mainers in cash and pledges,” she said.

Dion, Hammer and Whitcomb also said they thought they would be able raise the necessary funds.

Mitchell said the hurdles for qualification are significant, but the payoff is worth it.

“It allows me to be totally focused on my constituents and my job and not worry about not having enough money to run a credible campaign,” she said. “What comes out of that is that you are spending much more of your time actually discussing issues and going to see people and everyone can participate for $5.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said she worked with public financing advocates, such as Smith, to develop law that would strengthen the system. Pingree’s legislation, enacted this year, made the seed money a requirement and also increased the amount of money qualified candidates would receive during both the primary and the general election.

“We had a huge debate during the last Legislature, with a lot of legislators in both parties wanting to get rid of gubernatorial clean elections,” she said. “In order to keep clean elections a system that Maine people can support, I think they need to understand that it’s being taken seriously and that people who are getting a huge infusion of taxpayer money can prove that they can run a viable campaign and that they have people behind them.”

Pingree’s legislation also allows for the revocation of a clean election candidate’s status if they fail to comply with seed money reporting requirements.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said there is a remote possibility that the Clean Election Fund may not have enough money to cover its obligations if a certain number of candidates qualify and make it to the general election.

“If four primary candidates qualified and two in the general, we would just break even,” he said. If more than that qualified, the Maine Clean Election Act allows the commission to authorize candidates to fundraise privately to make up the shortfall.

“We’re hopeful it wouldn’t come to pass,” Wayne said.

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