LEWISTON — A group of local business owners threw their support Thursday to a statewide ballot effort aimed at reforming Maine’s campaign finance and political advertising disclosure laws.

All are members of the Maine Small Business Coalition, which represents more than 4,000 small businesses from across the state. They said the coalition supports a yes vote on Question 1.

The ballot question, which goes to voters in November, would increase the amount of public financing available to candidates who don’t take any private campaign contributions. It also would require political action or ballot question committees to disclose their top three donors in any advertising to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure.

“We’ve got a choice coming up,” said Jim Wellehan, the owner of the Auburn-based Lamey-Wellehan shoe stores. “We can have clean elections or we can have dirty elections, and I know which one I prefer.”

Wellehan said he supports the measure because it would help reduce the influence of money in Maine politics, especially money that’s difficult to trace and is usually tied to large corporations or other entities that have a financial stake in controlling the votes in the Maine Legislature with their campaign donations.

“We are talking about people who really don’t want to see an increase in the minimum wage because that might hurt CEO pay,” Wellehan said. “And they like their special tax privileges and, you know, if we could just pollute a little bit more, Lewiston used to smell better when the Androscoggin River was more polluted so let’s just have a little bit more pollution; it’s good for the state of Maine.”

Wellehan was being sarcastic about the pollution, of course, but the point was that dark money often ends up holding a lot of sway over politicians. He said politicians may say they are not influenced by large campaign contributions, but that simply isn’t true. 

“You think if they take $80,000 in campaign contributions they are going to be objective when an issue comes up that impacts that donor?” Wellehan asked. “No way in blazes.”

Also speaking in support of the measure Thursday was Kevin Callahan, the owner of Kimball Street Studios on Lisbon Street which hosted the news conference, and Bettyann Sheats, the owner of Finishing Touches in Auburn.

The ballot push is the work of the Mainers for Accountable Elections, a project of the Portland-based nonprofit group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

Andrew Bossie, the president of the Yes on 1 Campaign, said the small-business coalition’s support of the measure was welcomed and represented yet another example of how broad the support for campaign finance and disclosure reform is in Maine.

“I heard stories from all kinds of people, from Mainers from all walks of life,” Bossie said during the short conference in Lewiston announcing the coalition’s support. He said small-business owners and workers of all political stripes have told him they want big money out of politics.

“All (are) talking about the need to have a government that works for them, a government that responds to their needs and not the needs of just those who make high-priced contributions and hire high-priced lobbyists,” Bossie said. “If we want a true democracy, we need to reduce the role that big money plays in our elections so that all of our voices can be heard in the political process.”

Opponents to the change in campaign finance laws say the state’s Clean Election Act is in shambles and amounts to a kind of welfare for politicians. 

State Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, who was elected as a traditional candidate — one who raised private campaign funds without public support — said that while there is no group opposing the Yes on 1 campaign, he intended to.

Stetkis said Thursday the changes being proposed wouldn’t necessarily remove money from politics but would nearly triple the amount a publicly funded candidate could pull down from state coffers, ultimately costing taxpayers more money.

“They are looking at raising taxes on job-creators and, in some cases, tripling the amount of taxpayer-funded welfare for politicians,” Stetkis said. He said the groups complaining about “dark money” in Maine politics were the beneficiaries of the same kind of money that fuels their various nonprofit organizations, which in turn can support or oppose candidates and ballot questions.

“It’s so hypocritical, it just cracks me up,” said Stetkis, himself a small-business owner and general contractor. 

Others, including Brent Littlefield, a top political consultant and campaign adviser for conservative candidates and politicians, including Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage, also panned the ballot-question push.

Littlefield, who formerly served as political director for national small-business lobbying organization the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said he was speaking for himself in urging Mainers to reject the ballot question.

“This is a smoke screen to expand welfare for politicians so these groups do not have to pay for the political campaigns they want to run. Instead, they want the taxpayers to pick up the bill,” Littlefield wrote in a message to the Sun Journal on Thursday.

He also charged the Maine Small Business Coalition with being an arm of the left-leaning political activist group the Maine People’s Alliance — an allegation both the alliance and business coalition have denied in the past.

Will Ikard, the director of the Maine Small Business Coalition, again rebuffed Littlefield’s charge Thursday and said his organization included small-business owners from across the political spectrum.

“We believe that for too long, representatives of large corporations have declared that certain policies are, quote, ‘good for business,'” Ikard said. “What they really mean is that those policies are good for their business, that they are good for big businesses and it often means policies that tip the scales in favor of large corporations from far away. That is why we have long advocated for reining in the corrupting influence of money in our political system and why today we are urging all Mainers to vote yes on Question 1.”

While Bossie said there was no known organization formed to oppose the ballot question, he anticipated a dark-money group would likely emerge later in the campaign and begin advertising against the measure. Bosse said that group would likely deploy exactly the type of tactics Question 1 is meant to prevent.

If successful, the measure could face challenges in the courts, but Bossie said his group had legal experts from both conservative and liberal organizations vet the proposed law changes and he believes they would hold up in court.

Bossie said the new law would only apply to state elections in Maine and not federal elections, as those are governed by federal law.

Callahan said dysfunction in Congress made it necessary for states to take the lead on campaign-finance reform.

“The states have to do it and as the states accumulate, then it will become the law for the nation. But the states have to do the work (first) because in Washington, they can’t do it,” Callahan said.

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