The proliferation of leadership PACs in Maine is detrimental to public confidence in the democratic process. Legislation now pending would ban such PACs. The Legislature should seize the opportunity.

Maine voters have long demanded a campaign funding system that ensures accountability and honors democratic ideals. Through the years, many steps have been taken to reduce the influence of special interest money. Banning lobbyists from making campaign contributions during the legislative session, reducing contribution limits, and creating the Maine Clean Election system all served that goal.

Despite these improvements, it is still possible for lawmakers and candidates to create their own political action committees without violating the letter of the law. Those candidates operate two committees — one for their own campaign, plus a political action committee to raise money for other purposes.

Leadership PACs are a growing part of the campaign funding system in Maine. In the 2014 election cycle, legislative candidates operated more than 30 leadership PACs that together raised more than a million dollars.

Ethics Commission records show that all 10 current members of legislative leadership operated PACs in addition to their own campaign re-election committees. The top Democratic and Republican leadership PACs each took in more than $100,000.

Although a majority of state legislators fund their own election campaigns with the Clean Election public funding system, most of those who rise to official leadership positions within the Legislature use private funding for their re-election campaigns. Seven current legislative leaders used the private funding option and also operated PACs, raising more than $400,000 in the 2014 cycle. The three legislative leaders who used Clean Elections operated PACs that raised about $300,000.

These totals do not include thousands of dollars raised by other PACs controlled by the legislative caucuses, the political parties, national PACs, super-PACs, and “social welfare” organizations.

In 2014, much of the money raised by leadership PACs was eventually spent on independent expenditures, filling mailboxes and the airwaves with campaign messages that many voters found negative and destructive.

While all legislative candidates, both privately and publicly funded, are limited in what they may raise from individual contributors, there are no contribution limits on the money raised by these same candidates for their leadership PACs. In contrast, candidates for secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and state auditor are banned from having a PAC or even soliciting contributions for another person’s PAC.

Legislators ought to be subject to the same ban, and now is the time to close that troubling loophole. Legislators have an opportunity to solve the problem, with several PAC reform bills under consideration.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections strongly supports a comprehensive bill to ban leadership PACs for all candidates. Whether a candidate is privately funded or publicly funded, operating a leadership PAC to receive unlimited contributions violates the spirit of the law — and the public trust.

Our policymakers should be accountable to the voters, and not to contributors from across the political spectrum giving tens of thousands of dollars, much of it from out of state.

Legislators of both parties have taken advantage of the leadership PAC loophole. But just because that is the way things have been done doesn’t mean the state can’t do better. Campaign finance laws must protect the ideal of “government of, by and for the people,” and a ban on leadership PACs is a positive step.

Clean Election candidates who operate leadership PACs have been singled out for special criticism, since they are prohibited from taking special interest money for their own campaigns. But that is not solely a Clean Elections problem. Privately-funded candidates have accepted special interest PAC contributions 10, 20 or even 30 times larger than the contribution limit that applies to their own campaigns. Ending that practice can help restore confidence in democracy.

Leadership PACs and the concerns that go along with them are not unique to Maine. The South Carolina House of Representatives recently voted 115 to 1 to enact a ban on leadership PACs in that state.

PAC reform should also enhance transparency.

Today’s confusing web of political committees makes it difficult for the public to understand who is paying to influence state elections. Large transactions between PACs, parties and other political players obscure the sources of funding and the relationships among donors. Real PAC reform can simplify that complex network and enhance the public’s access to information.

Maine people are clear that they want to reduce the influence of big money in politics. They want their leaders to be accountable to the people. Maine people want lawmakers to close the leadership PAC loophole and limit the opportunities for moneyed interests to influence state representatives.

The leadership PAC loophole must be closed for all candidates. We hope legislators have the courage to stand up for their constituents and enact a comprehensive leadership PAC ban this session.

John Brautigam served in the Legislature from 2004 to 2008 and is now an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. He lives in Falmouth.

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