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Officials: 'There's a Good Chance' Clean Elections Can Fully Fund Candidates

State officials are telling legislative candidates they’re cautiously optimistic that the public campaign finance system will have enough money to get through Election Day. They’ve known for months the program could run out of money, but an effort to keep the Clean Elections fund whole fell short during the legislative session.

Maine voters approved the Clean Election Act in 1996. It created a system in which candidates for state and some local offices can receive public money if they collect enough small-dollar donations.

The system has proven popular, and last year Mainers voted to bolster it after it was weakened by two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But the Clean Elections program remains threatened by political and financial forces.

State budget writers have repeatedly raided the fund to the tune of $12 million over the past 14 years. The Legislature has repaid less than half of it. And this year, an effort to ensure that the program remains solvent through Election Day failed after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed an advance payment on next year’s funding.

“We the commission staff think there’s a good chance that there will be enough money in the Maine Clean Election fund to fully fund candidates this year, but we can’t be sure.” says Jonathan Wayne, director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which administers the program for more than 200 Clean Election legislative candidates. “That’s why we had gone to the Legislature to ask for an advance on some revenue that we would otherwise receive after the election, just to be safe.”

The opponents who blocked the advance funding include candidates, all Republicans, who will receive Clean Elections money this year. Advocates of the program argued those same candidates are hypocrites for not voting to ensure the program remains solvent.

Calais Republican Joyce Maker, one of the Clean Elections candidates who helped the governor block passage of the funding, says she believes in the program, but thinks it gives candidates too much money. In fact, she says she has returned leftover funds after her previous campaigns and she’ll take her chances if the money she receives this year isn’t enough for her campaign.

“$15,000 for a representative seat? That’s ludicrous,” she says. “We don’t even have people who have wages of that amount of money.”

Wayne says that if the program runs out of money, there could be a way for candidates to traditionally fund their campaigns. But even then, he worries that Maine’s first-in-the-nation public financing law will suffer a permanent black eye.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.