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Lawmakers Split on Gutting Public Funding for Maine Gubernatorial Campaigns

AUGUSTA, Maine - A legislative committee has divided over a bill that would prohibit candidates running for governor from receiving money from the Clean Elections fund.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs committee split 6-6 on a motion to defeat the bill, with Democrats favoring it and Republicans opposing it.

Oxford Republican Rep. Kathleen Dillingham says she can't justify spending up to $3 million in taxpayer funds for each gubernatorial candidate when lawmakers are considering cuts to other programs.

"There's a lot of money available to gubernatorial candidates and I can't see using taxpayer money in this way," Dillingham says.

Democrats say cutting the proposal goes against the will of voters, who first adopted the Maine Clean Election program 20 years ago and voted two years ago to strengthen it.

Rep. Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop, said the proposal was one of many designed to gut a Clean Election program enacted by voters.

"I'll just say it as bluntly as I can:  It's getting rid of Clean Elections by what we call a death by a thousand cuts," Hickman says.

The proposal is expected to be debated again when the House and Senate vote on it at a later date.

The Maine Clean Election program was the nation's first public campaign financing law. It was designed to decrease candidate's dependence on wealthy donors and interest groups by requiring candidates to collect small donations in order to qualify for public funding.

Opponents of the program have argued that it has resulted in more spending by outside interest groups while doing little to decrease the influence of interest groups.

Gubernatorial candidates have had access to the program in three elections since 2002. No Clean Election candidate has won a gubernatorial race.

The program was widely used by legislative candidates in both parties before Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature cut funding to the program in 2011. Participation rose last year after voters approved a referendum that added funding to the program in 2015.

Spending by groups not affiliated with gubernatorial candidate campaigns has skyrocketed in legislative races in Maine and elsewhere. During the 2014 gubernatorial race, the three candidates raised a combined $8 million for their campaigns, although none of them used the Clean Election program. That spending was eclipsed by nearly $12 million in outside spending, including $6 million in negative ads and communications against candidates.