AUGUSTA — A legislative panel Wednesday rejected a bill that would change the way Maine replaces a U.S. senator in the the case of an absence.

On a nearly unanimous vote, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee shot down a bill offered by state Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, that would have stripped from the governor’s office the power to appoint a replacement U.S. senator if a vacancy were to occur between election cycles.

Moonen’s measure would have required the state to hold a special primary election and then a special election to fill the vacancy. Moonen said he offered the bill in an attempt at consistency and in response to a proposal by Republican Gov. Paul LePage that would see the state’s constitutional officers — attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state — be elected by voters, instead of by the Legislature.

The bill fueled speculation that Democrats were worried about a potential scenario that could see LePage in the position to fill a vacant Senate seat, were U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to run for and be elected governor in 2018. Moonen insisted his bill had nothing to do with Collins.

State Rep. Louis Lucchini, D-Ellsworth, House chairman of the committee, said the vote against the measure reflected concern that Moonen’s proposal did not allow for an interim appointment. Under the measure, Maine could see up to a six-month vacancy in its U.S. Senate seat because it would take that long to conduct the two elections needed to fill the seat.

The measure also included a price tag of $300,000 per special election for the state, a figure that didn’t include the local costs to cities and towns to conduct a special statewide election.

The committee, which oversees elections and campaign finance laws, approved a bill that reduces the individual donation limit for municipal and county elections from $750 per donor to $350.

The committee also rejected a bill that would have only allowed a candidate for the Legislature or the governor’s office to run only once as a publicly funded candidate under the state’s Clean Election Act. State Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, the bill’s author, said she believed first-time candidates should be allowed to run with public funds but once they win office, they usually gain enough name recognition to run a privately financed campaign.

The committee rejected the bill largely because it could be in conflict with a citizen initiative that’s heading to the polls in November that seeks to restructure and allow additional distributions for Clean Election candidates under certain circumstances.

The committee tabled a bill that would have fixed problems in Maine’s campaign finance law highlighted in a 2014 federal lawsuit filed by supporters of Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor.  

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in August 2014 that Cutler’s supporters could contribute the same to their candidate as donors to the Republican and Democratic candidates in the race. Maine law allows donors to contribute $1,500 to a candidate’s primary campaign and another $1,500 for the general election. While independents, who have no primaries, are limited to a single $1,500 donation for the general election. In 2014, with no Democratic or Republican primaries in the governor’s race, the court found Maine’s law was unfair to Cutler’s donors.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the committee had four options it could pursue to remedy the flaw in Maine’s law.

Those options included:

* Changing the law to require primary elections for independents, which would make them eligible to collect primary campaign donations.

* Address the specific scenario that came up in 2014 by allowing an independent to collect primary donations when their opponents can.

* Setting election cycle donation limits and doing away with splitting donations between the primary and the general elections.

* Restricting donations to the general election campaign limits when candidates do not face primary challengers.

The committee tabled the bill to work out which option they believe would be the best remedy.

The committee also tentatively approved a measure that would prohibit Maine Clean Election candidates from operating political action committees. The bill would prohibit candidates from collecting funds for a PAC or from being officers or primary decision-makers in a PAC.

The measure as it stands is a combination of five bills that sought to regulate the use of PACs by legislative candidates or lawmakers. The bill would allow candidates to solicit donations for a political party’s political action committee.

But the bill likely faces additional votes. Several lawmakers on the committee said following the near-unanimous vote on the measure that they may ask to reconsider their vote in order to offer another amendment or another alternative for the full Legislature to consider.

Some lawmakers, including state Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said they favored a bill that prohibited all candidates for state office from operating PACs.

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