Reform by Legislature or Citizen Referendum?

The election season is coming on fast and with it some ever-nagging questions concerning clean elections or publicly-funded campaigns: Should Maine taxpayers be responsible to fund campaigns”? What is the cost to taxpayers and can we afford it?

The legislation was the Maine Clean Election Act, which was voted in by citizen initiative in 1995. The candidates who choose to participate in the publicly-funded process may accept limited private contributions for their campaigns, known as seed money. The candidates may collect seed money from private contributors only, no businesses. House candidates may collect up to $500, Senate up to $1,500 and gubernatorial candidates up to $200,000; this includes cash, goods and services and in-kind contributions. Candidates are required to collect either a specified number of $5 contributions from registered voters in their district. House candidates must collect 60 $5 contributions, Senate candidates 175 $5 checks and gubernatorial candidates 3,250 $5 qualifying checks.

Those who meet the qualifications for Clean Election funding  would receive the following funds: House, $1,504 for the primary and $4,144 for the general election; Senate, $7,746 for the primary, $19,078 for the general election;  governor, $400,000 for the primary and $600,000 for the general election. These numbers do not include any matching funds for candidates.

To date, there are 295 potential clean election candidates: seven running for governor ($2.8 million), 223 for House  ($335,392)  and 65 for Senate ($503,490), who could potentially receive a total of $3,638,88 in clean election funding — just for the primary. Quite the price tag wouldn’t you say? It’s a good thing Maine doesn’t have a budget problem!

The intention of this law was to get the “dirty” money out of politics and insure nobody is beholden to lobbyists, special interests or rich individuals, and to level the playing field by allowing anyone to run a campaign.

Here is where it gets murky and allows as much money to come in to candidates and parties as they can take. Any person, candidates included, organization or group can form a PAC (political action committee) and collect up to $1,000 in each contribution. That is correct — even “clean election” candidates! Someone please explain how these clean-election candidates would not be beholden to these special interest groups? Also there is a part of the law called “matching funds” which specifies that when any issue-advocacy group makes an ad endorsing a clean-election candidate, his opponent (if he/she is a clean-election candidate) receives up to twice the original clean-election funding to level the playing field — all at the expense of the taxpayers

Every session someone submits legislation to correct this loophole, but the majority party never lets it out of committee. I mean, why would they cut off their endless pool of money and really level the playing field?

The other campaign issue dealing with campaign finance is the recent U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision in Citizens v. Federal Election Commission. The direct case heard by the Justices was about whether the movie “Hillary; the Movie” fell under campaign finance laws. The court ordered re-argument on the last day of its session. The court could have ruled on the narrow grounds of the movie, but instead asked both parties to address a broader question: Whether two important First Amendment precedents upholding campaign finance regulation ought to be overruled; those two cases were “Hillary: the Movie” and McCain/Feingold.

The question is: How will this affect the political landscape in Maine? The truth is, nobody is sure because of the newness of the decision. We have to remember the reason congress and state legislatures have tried to regulate campaign finance in the first place. First, money distorts the representative democracy. We have a principle of one person, one vote. Just the appearance of impropriety when a wealthy person or organization contributes large sums of money to influence the outcome of an election that greatly multiplies the effectiveness of how he/she votes, relative to the vote of someone with modest means.

The second rationale was actually created from the courts by avoiding the appearance of corruption by allowing campaign finance regulation to prevent either an actual quid pro quo or the appearance of one.

The reality of these decisions is that they have opened the floodgate for independent expenditures by groups or organizations to run advocacy ads for candidates with no regulation of the amount of money spent. Previously,  I said that this was a way around clean-election candidates receiving independent expenditures and matching funds. The problem is, that if you have one candidate running a traditional campaign, privately financed, he or she does not receive any matching funds. This unfairly tips the balance to the clean-election candidate, who can receive unlimited independent expenditures from outside entities. I know this because I have always run traditional and had a lot of money spent by the Maine Education Association and the Maine State Employees Association, the National Education Association and several other organizations. I personally think the publicly funded campaign system is broken and needs to be  fixed or eliminated.

The law, in my opinion,  favors the incumbents with the unintended consequence, or maybe it is intended, of discouraging privately funded campaigns and keeping the playing field level. The problem is, I don’t think the politicians are ready to level the playing field and reform the Clean Election Act of 1995 any time soon.

This law came in by citizen referendum; maybe the people should take control back and should reform it the same way, Peoples’ Referendum — that is before they start to monkey with the citizen referendum process. Let me know your thoughts.

(Scott Lansley is a former State Legislator and current chairman of the Sabattus Selectman. He resides in Sabattus with his wife and two children)