AUGUSTA — The top Republican in the state Senate is offering a bill that would charge political action committees in Maine a fee for transferring large amounts of money between one another.

The bill, LD 1192, offered by state Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, is the latest in a list of about a dozen bills that are taking aim at Maine’s campaign finance and Clean Election Act.

Thibodeau’s measure would require PACs that transfer more than $25,000 between them to pay a 25 percent transfer fee that would be used to help fund the state’s Clean Election system.

The bill, before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, is meant to help reduce the amount of attack advertising in Maine political campaigns and increase campaign finance transparency by trying to reduce the amount of money passed from PAC to PAC. The measure also would require the top donor in a PAC to be disclosed on any advertising done by the PAC.

“Currently, a lot of money is shuffled around and I think this excessive transferring allows PACs, unions, corporations and other major donors to disguise their activity,” Thibodeau said. “We just emerged from one of the nastiest campaign seasons on record where political candidates were being viciously attacked in campaign ads, in some cases being accused of voting to poison children.”

In the 2014 election cycle, more than $19 million in PAC funding and more than 85 cash transfers would have been subject to Thibodeau’s measure, according to records provided by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

Ethics Commission Director Jonathan Wayne said while his agency was neither for nor against Thibodeau’s bill, there were components of that may be subject to First Amendment challenges, and he urged the committee to confer with the state’s attorney general before voting on the measure.

Wayne also said his agency was working on how PAC donations and expenditures are reported to the public and suggested a more transparent way to track those transactions was something the commission was looking at.

State Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, a member of the committee, said the practice of PACs in Maine politics passing large sums of money between them as a means to avoid disclosing who is paying for what, “kind of sounds like we are talking about money laundering.”

Maryanne Turowski, a lobbyist for the Maine State Employees Union, testified against the measure, objecting to a provision that seems to penalize only unions with a $500 fine if they fail to comply with the new law.

Turowski said other issues with Thibodeau’s bill, including whether it would conflict with the U.S. Constitution, were being reviewed by “lawyers galore.” 

Turowski said unions already disclose most of the political activities under state and federal laws and are required to break that out for their members in detail. She said members then have a process to appeal to have some of their dues returned if they don’t agree with a political expenditure.

But other lawmakers joined in praising Thibodeau for trying to take on the issue of increasingly negative political advertising without adequate transparency.

“I think that’s where this is all coming from, basically,” state Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, the committee’s Senate chairman, said. 

Cyrway is also the primary sponsor of the a bill, LD 1123, that is based on recommendations of the Ethics Commission that would prohibit a state lawmaker from using a PAC to pay themselves or their family members for work on the PAC.

That measure would also require more documentation for candidates filing campaign finance reports to include the addresses of those they pay for services. The bill also requires candidates who are using public financing for their campaigns to better document payments to consultants over $2,000, including an itemized invoice or time sheet that provides the specific dates and number of hours a consultant worked for a candidate.

The commission’s bill, offered by Cyrway, makes a total of 21 different changes or additions to Maine’s campaign finance and Clean Election laws, including higher fines for those who violate disclosure laws.

Both bills will be subject to a future work session with the committee before they go to the full Legislature for consideration in the weeks ahead.

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