If you’re angry, annoyed, disturbed, or upset about the influence of money on politics, you’re like just about every American who’s interested in the subject.

The steady stream of U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that Congress, and the state legislatures, can’t make any regulation, rule or law to limit campaign contributions or spending, lest it offend the free speech rights of mega-corporations or billionaires, has removed the last vestiges of restraint.
As a democratic society, we believe the votes of billionaires and the poorest citizens should count equally – they each get one. The reality has clearly never matched that, but the actual weight on the political scale has never been so absurdly skewed as it is today.
Spectacles that should rouse revulsion – such as Republican presidential hopefuls going on pilgrimage to kiss the ring of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson – instead evoke a shrug. In case you missed it, Adelson gave $100 million to GOP candidates in 2012, the most by any individual, and will certainly exceed that this time around now that the Supreme Court has removed the remaining fences.
There are multiple reasons why there’s been no major environmental legislation passed by Congress since the 1990 Clean Air Act. But the Koch brothers, enthusiastic purveyors of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, are certainly among those reasons, and their lifetime campaign gifts far exceed Adelson’s.
Indeed, the campaign finance landscape is so depressing it’s tempting to just give up. But that’s the wrong response.
In the months ahead, we can all strike a blow for citizen democracy by signing petitions for what we’ll call the Clean Election Restoration Act of 2015.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which has defended, against daunting odds, the 1996 initiated law that provided public funding for legislative and governor’s races, is sponsoring a new referendum to restore and improve the law – something that will never happen if we leave it up to elected officials.
For it turns out that, while Republicans are the biggest opponents of clean election funding, Democrats aren’t exactly zealous defenders, either.
Maine was the first state to enact a comprehensive, voluntary system for public funding. Arizona, stung after three consecutive governors went to prison on corruption charges, was the second.
Massachusetts should have been the third. Voters enacted a similar law, but the Democratic-dominated legislature refused to fund it, then put on the ballot an outrageously worded alternative question suggesting taxes would go up if public funding was approved – and voters bought it. In fact, the proportion of taxpayer funding required is a small fraction of 1% of the total cost of government.
It would also be fair to say that, during the original 1996 clean elections debate, views of officeholders ranged from indifferent to hostile.
After the law took effect, though, most candidates liked that they could run a reasonable campaign – around $4,000 for a House seat – without dialing for dollars. Ordinary people could actually run for, and occasionally win, a state election.
The Clean Election Act has become tattered over the years, however. Lawmakers started diverting money from the campaign fund during the Baldacci administration, and Gov. Paul LePage wanted to zero it out. The “compromise” was that there would be no more public funding for governor’s races, and in 2014 all candidates are privately funded.
The Supreme Court took its best shot, too. In a case less well known than Citizens United or the just-decided McCutcheon, it crimped Arizona’s law, and Maine’s, by eliminating the matching fund provisions when a privately funded candidate outspends a publicly funded one.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the 5-4 decision, was outraged that state laws could be aimed at “leveling the playing field.” The richest candidate must always have every advantage money can provide, according to Roberts.
So the new referendum is both needed and timely. It will provide more funding so candidates for governor can again qualify. It will install a replacement matching funds provision that should meet the court’s objections.
It will require donor disclosure for gubernatorial transitions, a “dark money” area of Maine law. And it will increase penalties for violations, which are, unfortunately, now seen by some as just a cost of doing business.
It’s hard to see how anyone — except those who believe that public office should be available to the higher bidder — could object.
It will take years to overcome the Supreme Court’s egregious doctrine that money equals speech. But the new Clean Elections campaign is something we can join right now, and measurably improve our representative form of government.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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