The State Ethics Commission has crafted a short-term fix to sidestep a political logjam that is keeping public campaign financing from reaching candidates. But the commission, which administers these public funds under the Clean Elections Act, says lawmakers will have to address the larger problem in order to avoid possible legal challenges.
Public campaign funds have been tied up on a number of fronts. Republican Governor Paul LePage has refused to allow the Ethics Commission to transfer money during the current budget year. In addition, a drafting error in the state budget blocks money to cover administrative costs, as well as payments to candidates in the new budget year. Lawmakers have so far not passed legislation to fix the budget problem, and that means some candidates will get more state money for their campaigns than others.
Commission Chair William Lee says candidates who have already collected $5 contributions to trigger additional allocations beyond the basic grant may have an advantage over other candidates awaiting later deadlines.
“They’re going to get more money, and some of them may be going against somebody that is taking a more gradual approach, and so somebody is going to have a whole lot more money in the same race than somebody else might have,” says Lee.
The commission unanimously agreed on a formula that will distribute what money it can dole out by the end of the week, which is estimated at less than one-third of what the 119 legislative candidates and one candidate for Governor are currently owed under the law.
Lee points out that if the legislature acts, the rest of the money can be distributed.
“We don’t know how this is ultimately going to work out because if the whole thing gets fixed, it all works out in the end,” says Lee.
Lawmakers late Tuesday evening failed to fix the problem, but will have another opportunity when they go back into session next month.
Meanwhile the Ethics Commission is anticipating the possibility of legal interventions. If it can’t give candidates the funds spelled out in the law, clean candidates who are left short changed may well have grounds for a lawsuit. In fact, the group “Maine Citizens for Clean Elections” says it is considering filing suit.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne summed up the situation that is facing the commission, candidates and lawmakers.
“Politics is like a competition of ideas, it’s similar to sports,” says Wayne. “You don’t change the rules of the game in the middle of the game and that’s the problem we are facing here.”
Wayne says Commission staff will work out an exact percentage of what can be paid out to each candidate in time to send out checks on Friday. The Commission says it would like to hear public input on how it should respond if the state budget problem is not solved in the next few weeks. The Commission meets again July 25.