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Clean Elections Supporters to Pursue Citizens' Initiative

Stung by the effects of a Supreme Court decision and the failure of the state Legislature to offer a remedy, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is advancing a new proposal it says will give outspent candidates the money they need to compete in state races.  Under the plan, state funding to the program would increase by $1 million a year, and candidates would be allowed to access more money by collecting additional contributions. A.J. Higgins has more.

Two years ago, a Republican-controlled Legislature rejected a bill that would have provided publicly financed candidates with access to additional funds. The proposal was offered in the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the additional matching funds provision in states like Maine that offer public funding in legislative races.

Now, Ann Luther, the president of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, says her organization is ready to organize a citizens' initiative aimed at enacting a new funding mechanism.

"Ordinary Maine people can't write big campaign checks, nor they can hire lobbyists," Luther said at an Augusta news conference. "What they can do is make small contributions to candidates they support."

Under the proposal - which largely mirrors the failed 2012 legislative effort - the state would increase its contribution to the Maine Clean Elections Fund by $1 million annually, for a total of $6 million under the two-year budget cycle.

With the money gained by the additional $5 qualifying contributions, increased fines paid by Clean Election Law violators and other revenue sources, Luther says House candidates who are currently capped at about $4,000 would be eligible for up to $12,000; Senate candidates currently limited to $22,000 for their campaigns could receive as much as $65,000; and gubernatorial candidates could receive up to $3 million under future state budgets.

Luther says, if approved, a House or Senate candidate would have enough money to stage a credible campaign against an opponent who may be spending $100,000 or more.  And Luther says while the Maine Clean Elections system will never be able to keep up with the millions of dollars in independent expenditures that are increasingly being spent on state races by third parties, she says new mandatory disclaimers in the measure would come into play.

"The initiative improves on disclosure by providing voters with timely information about who funds the often generic-sounding PACs (political action committees) that pay for independent expenditure campaign ads," Luther said. "Voters should know who is trying to influence their vote."

Though suffering a setback from the U.S. Supreme Court slap down on matching funds - construed as a prior restraint of free speech on the basis that money equals speech - Arn Pearson, of the progressive advocacy group Common Cause, says the new citizens' initiative will put Maine's law back on the right track.

"There are ways to deal with the current Supreme Court, and the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has done a great job of figuring that out and putting it forward," Pearson said, "but unfortunately Augusta has not acted, and so now it's time for people to take matters back into their own hands and to make Clean Elections work for another generation of voters and candidates."

"These Maine Citizens for Clean Elections ought to be honest and say:' We really want to make this clean,'" says Joe Bruno.

Bruno, a former state GOP chairman and House Republican leader, has never been a big fan of taxpayer-financed elections. And in the 20 years or so that he's been involved with state government organizations, he says he's never seen the state awash in so much revenue that it could afford to give millions of dollars away to political campaigns.  

And Bruno says if Maine citizens were truly that supportive of the Maine Clean Election Fund, then we should be seeing an increase in voluntary contributions through state tax returns, rather than a decline.

"I think you already have an indication of what the Maine people want with Clean Elections - when you look at what the check-off contribution is for Clean Elections is, it doesn't amount to a hill of beans," Bruno says. "If people are so behind this thing and think that there's all kinds of dirty money in politics, they'd be checking the box to give to Clean Elections."

At Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, Andrew Bossie says tax check-off contributions may have dropped off in recent years, but he added that the tax form contribution was not a good barometer to gauge public support for the program, given the state's struggling economy over the last few years.