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Bill Would Bar Maine Legislators From Running PACs

A popular campaign tool used by aspiring legislative leaders in Augusta could be taken away, under a new bill being considered at the State House. Those behind the measure say it will reduce the exchange of money for influence between lawmakers and the industries they’re supposed to regulate.

The proposal essentially outlaws political action committees that are run by members of the Legislature. Last year more than 20 leadership PACs received over $1 million in contributions. The donors included alcohol and tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies, energy producers and finance and high-powered lobbying firms.

“What makes these particular political action committees unique is the fact that they are run by legislators — sitting lawmakers whose responsibility is to regulate the same industries that dump unlimited sums of money into their accounts,” says Saco Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, who testified before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Monday.

Chenette and other supporters argued that traditionally financed legislative candidates can receive no more than $400 from an individual or organization per election. But there’s no limit on PAC donations.

PACs not only allow lawmakers to circumvent contribution limits, Chennette says, they also have a corrupting influence at the State House. That’s because aspiring legislative leaders often use the donations to fund their efforts to become majority leader, speaker of the House, Senate president or even to obtain a coveted committee assignment.

To campaign for these positions, they may host a party or event, or make a direct donation to legislative candidates or another PAC — or maybe they’ll purchase a radio ad or round of mailers to help out a colleague facing a tough race.

“That is akin to buying that support,” says former Portland legislator Cushman Anthony. “I view it as a subtle form of bribery.”

There was nearly $1 million spent by leadership PACs last year. That’s less than a third of the four so-called caucus PACs, which are operated by legislative leadership and that take unlimited donations from the same industries, unions and organizations that routinely advocate or actively oppose legislation.

Caucus PACs would still be allowed to continue, even if the bill discussed Monday passes.

What the bill would do is ban privately financed legislators from running leadership PACs, and supporters hope to build on a law passed last year that banned publicly financed candidates from running them.

But to pass the measure, supporters will have to hurdle the ambitions of legislative leaders — none of whom are publicly backing the bill.

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