Watch the hearing live on CSPAN

AUGUSTA — An effort by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, to examine the impact of so-called “dark money” on state and federal elections drew praise from clean election advocates in Maine on Tuesday.

But just a day before King was set to chair a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Rules Committee on how undisclosed funding for candidates and campaigns affects American politics, the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics was urging Maine legislators and Gov. Paul LePage to repeal state campaign finance laws that it says are unconstitutional.

Center for Competitive Politics President David Keating said Maine’s law limiting the amount individuals can donate to a candidate or campaign is in direct conflict with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, “McCutcheon v. FEC.”

In a letter to lawmakers, LePage and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, Keating urged them “to take quick action to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision … to ensure Maine does not continue to violate its citizens’ First Amendment rights.”

Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, said the state would review the letter and advise the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees the state’s campaign finance laws. Feeley did not say what that advice would be.

The McCutcheon ruling is at the heart of the Rules Committee hearing to be chaired by King: The ruling abolished caps on an individual’s aggregate donations to all federal candidates, parties and some political committees. 

“No matter who you are, or whether you live in a ‘red state’ or a ‘blue state,’ you deserve to know who’s funding the ads on your TV during an election year,” King said. “But tracing the origin of campaign money — so-called ‘dark money’ — has become nearly impossible.”

The 10 a.m. hearing, which will feature witnesses whom a top advocate for clean elections in Maine called “the rock stars of campaign finance reform” including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, won’t change campaign law overnight, but is an important first step, King said.

“It’s far past time we shine a bright light on the dark money dominating campaigns,” he said.

Earlier in April, the senator introduced a bill, the Real Time Transparency Act of 2014, which would require all campaign contributions of $1,000 or more to be filed with the Federal Elections Commission within 48 hours.

BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said King’s advocacy for greater transparency was coming at a critical time for Maine as the 2014 election season, featuring several statewide races, begins to gain speed here.

The citizen group has been working to strengthen Maine’s clean elections law, which allows publicly financed political campaigns. McCollister detailed how difficult it was to keep track of donations that are filtered from large “not-for-profit” organizations to a variety of political action committees that pass the money on to party PACs or leadership PACs that then donate the money to a campaign. The average citizen has no way of knowing who pays for television ads or campaign mailers, he said.

While disclosure of which PAC paid for the ad is required, there’s no telling who funded that PAC, McCollister said.

Among the changes Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is pushing for is that the top three donors to a PAC be disclosed in any political advertising the PAC purchases. The group also is pushing for stiffer penalties and fines for those who intentionally violate Maine’s campaign finance laws. McCollister said fines are so light now for non-disclosure that they are viewed “simply as another cost of doing business in Maine.”

McCollister said a proposal earlier this year by LePage to require truth-testing of political ads by the state’s ethics commission  was unrealistic because it would have cost the state too much money.

He said if LePage were serious about campaign disclosure reforms, he would support Maine Citizens for Clean Elections’ proposals, including one that would allow candidates who accept public funds to qualify for additional funds when they are being attacked by undisclosed PAC money.

He said the state could easily pay for the additional public campaign financing by closing loopholes in existing corporate tax law.

“This is incredibly appropriate and it’s fitting that Angus King is leading the charge on the national level against dark money while in the backdrop here in Maine citizens are coming together to kick off a campaign to strengthen our campaign finance laws as well,” McCollister said.

He said he wasn’t surprised that the Center for Competitive Politics, an out-of-state organization, would send a letter to Maine officials on the eve of King’s hearing.

“Sen. King and Maine citizens are taking a lead in pushing back against these rulings with reforms that put voters first, while CCP is spending time trying to pass laws and reforms that put donors first,” McCollister said.

Candidates on the statewide campaign trail in Maine, including those running for U.S. Senate and governor have either rejected PAC funding outright or denounced its undue influence on American politics.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who is running for governor, said the landmark Citizens United — a ruling similar to McCutcheon v. FEC — undermined Maine’s publicly financed campaigns by allowing virtually unlimited spending by undisclosed donors for privately financed campaigns.

“We need to reduce the influence of money in politics,” Michaud said. “Maine’s Clean Election law was working to limit the influence of big money in elections and to create opportunities for candidates that don’t have deep pockets or connections to wealthy donors. Things have only gotten worse as the Supreme Court has further undermined reasonable limits on the amount wealthy individuals can spend on elections.”

Michaud said Congress needs to act and that’s why he’s a co-sponsor of two constitutional amendments that would overturn the Citizens United decisions.

Brent Littlefield, a spokesman for LePage’s re-election campaign, said LePage had no comment on King’s hearing Wednesday. 

 “On campaign money in general, I would just point out the massive $300,000 put into Maine politics to help Michael Michaud through the Democratic Party by out-of-state big labor bosses in Washington, D.C., on top of the other money he is siphoning from liberal special interests,” Littlefield wrote in an email message to the Sun Journal.

Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, has refused to take PAC money for his campaign. 

“I want to do as much as we can to diminish the influence of money in politics because I think it is corroding our democracy, basically stealing it from the voters,” Cutler said Tuesday.  “With Angus’ leadership in the Senate drawing attention to this problem, which is huge, it’s going to help us in Maine.”

U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, a Democrat running against incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, has focused her campaign on small donors and small donations.

“Dark money is especially dangerous because of the secrecy inherent in how the wealthiest people flood the political system with untraceable cash, giving them the ability to control public policy,” Bellows said. “I’m proud that in contrast to my opponent, Republican Susan Collins, my campaign is not receiving any corporate PAC money from groups like ExxonMobil and Bank of America.”

Bellows’ campaign staff said 97 percent of her campaign donations are from individual donors compared to 44 percent of Collins’ donations. They said the average donation to the Bellows campaign was $52 and the mean contribution was $5.

Collins’ campaign spokesman, Lance Dutson, said Bellows’ campaign staff and supporters were contributing many of the smaller donations to skew the average downward.

“Sen. Collins has been a leader for campaign finance reform and transparency since the day she started in the U.S. Senate,” Dutson said. “She continues to advocate for reforms, most recently joining with Sen. (Jon) Tester, D-Montana, in an effort to increase transparency.”

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