AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously rejected a bill that would have stripped public funding for candidates who run for governor. 

The committee vote looked like a win for advocates of the Maine Clean Election Act and a loss for the LePage administration. The governor has supported eliminating public funding for gubernatorial candidates.

However, Wednesday’s outcome may play into a larger, looming battle over public funding for legislative candidates. 

In November, lawmakers on the same committee were split on ways to make Maine’s public financing law comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down so-called matching funds. The mechanism allowed publicly financed candidates to receive additional funding beyond their upfront allowance if their opponent or an outside group spent additional money on that race. 

Democrats had hoped to ensure that the state’s clean election law remained viable in the absence of matching funds. Lawmakers endorsed a proposal by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices that would comply with the court decision while still allowing publicly funded legislative candidates to earn more money.

However, in November, Republicans on the Legal Affairs Committee voted for a bill that simply stripped the Maine law of matching funds while continuing to provide candidates a set amount of public money.

During negotiations that preceded the November vote, Republicans offered as a bargaining chip removing public funding for gubernatorial candidates and redirecting that money —  although none is currently budgeted — toward legislative races.  

Democrats and clean election act advocates have rejected that option, saying doing away with gubernatorial funding is a further erosion of a public financing law that was enacted with broad support by voters.

Meanwhile, some Republicans, and the LePage administration, note that taxpayers have spent $7.4 million on “clean” gubernatorial candidates, yet none has won an election or finished with more than 30 percent of the vote.

Such statistics have made the GOP more united in its opposition to gubernatorial funding, whereas the party is more divided over public financing for legislative candidates, which many GOP lawmakers use and still support.

That’s what made Republicans’ vote against the bill Wednesday puzzling to some clean election advocates. While the vote means that the bill to eliminate gubernatorial funding will likely die under the hammer this session, some wondered what was behind the GOP’s change of heart, particularly given that LePage has been strident in his opposition to clean election funds for gubernatorial candidates.

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said that his colleagues decided they didn’t have to address the gubernatorial funding because it didn’t have anything to do with the court decision on matching funds.   

“All we’ve done this session is comply with court decisions and this fits in with that,” Crockett said. “I think we all realized that we didn’t need to be so aggressive (in going after the clean election law).”

But prior to the vote, Crockett’s Republican colleagues didn’t share that view. His motion to kill the bill rattled his GOP peers, who quickly broke to caucus. Raised voices could be heard in the hallway as Republicans discussed their next move behind closed doors. 

Crockett declined to discuss what was said.

Democrats and clean election advocates were pleased, but wary, of the outcome.

“It was quite a surprise,” said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, the Democratic lead on the Legal Affairs panel. “Obviously, there was some disagreement among Republicans about this proposal, but I was happy to see that they voted not to further hollow out the program.”

Alison Smith, president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said the vote was positive for clean elections. However, she said lawmakers must address the viability of the program. 

“Maine people want to move forward, not backward, in the fight against big-money, special interests in our government,” Smith said.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives later this session. 

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