The Maine Ethics Commission voted 3-to-1 Thursday to unfreeze money for the state's public campaign finance program, which was previously hung up by a budget error that the Legislature couldn't muster enough votes to fix.
The Commission vote partially resolves the legislative impasse, and it was made possible by a recent superior court decision that prevented Republican Gov. Paul LePage from single-handedly blocking over $1 million to the Maine Clean Election program.
The effort to block Clean Election funds to over 200 legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful has dragged on for over five months.
It was led by LePage, a longtime opponent of the program, who first refused to sign routine financial orders. The Governor also used his veto power to bolster House Republican attempts to block bills that would have fixed a drafting error that effectively seized over $3 million already budgeted to Clean Elections.
During a debate held last spring, Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake acknowledged that he was aware of the error, but saw an opportunity to hobble a program that he and others in the House GOP have long opposed.
"I didn't bring it to the attention because I knew we'd get another whack at it," he said during the floor speech.
But efforts to chip away at the Clean Election program that voters approved nearly 20 years ago appear to have abated — at least for this year.
Advocates for the program, the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, successfully sued the Governor and won an order by Superior Court Judge William Stokes that forced the LePage administration to release over $1 million that he had attempted to freeze by refusing the financial orders.
On Thursday, Clean Election supporters helped persuade a majority of the Ethics Commission that the same court order also freed the more than $3 million held up by the budget error.
John Brautigam, an attorney for the group, argued that Stokes’ order was broad enough that it gave the ethics agency, which administers the Clean Election Program, the authority to release the additional money.
"You know, we're already passed the time when this is a no-harm situation,” he said. “Campaigns are getting harmed every day. So I'm urging you to act today. I'm urging you not to delay," he said.
Brautigam argued that candidates who qualified for public funding had been operating at a disadvantage against their traditionally financed opponents because attempts to halt Clean Election funding had delayed their ability to seek additional payments. And under the Clean Election rules, those candidates are stuck, because they are not allowed to raise private funds.
Commissioner William Lee, a Democrat, was convinced by the agency's staff and attorney, who agreed that the commission had the authority to release the funds.
"People have performed their side of the bargain. We have to, if we can legally, ensure that we perform our side of the bargain," he said. "It's just fundamental fairness and it's at the core of democracy."
But Commissioner Richard Nass, a Republican, questioned whether the commission had the power to fix the Legislature's problem. And even if it could, he didn't think it should.
"I'm going to be voting against this because I just see this as relieving the responsibility of the Legislature to fix these kinds of things,” he said. “They created the problem. Their job is to fix it, not ours.”
The Commission's vote authorizes ethics staff to process Clean Elections payments, but it doesn't actually fix the flawed budget law. And that law will still need to be corrected, so that the ethics agency can pay its rent and utilities. Unlike the Clean Elections funding, those expenses must still be approved by the LePage administration.
Update August 16, 2018 4:23 p.m.