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Fight Over Clean Elections Act Won’t Be Over Anytime Soon And May Have Consequences In November

Political charges and counter-charges are flying around efforts to preserve the state program that provides public funding for state candidates. The fight over the Maine Clean Elections Act is unlikely to be over anytime soon.

For weeks, Maine lawmakers have known that a drafting error in the state budget passed last year prevents the Maine Ethics Commission from paying its bills and providing payments to candidates under the voter-approved Clean Elections Act.

The money to fund the program was appropriated, but not the ability to spend the money. Supporters blame House Republicans for the problem.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, says House Republicans are trying to gain an advantage in the Fall elections by refusing to correct the mistake or to compromise on the issue.

“You know when you do this dance, not to piss off people, you know,” says Jackson. “But we are at the end here and we gotta go and we will.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport says it's not that House Republicans are engaging in election politics. He says they're simply trying to set spending priorities against a backdrop of too much spending.

“The House Republicans are actually trying to pay attention to our books,” says Fredette. “What that means is that we, since we come back in session we have blown through $140 million of our surplus.”

Fredette says his caucus does not believe financing political campaigns should be a state priority. Less than one-third of all of the House Republican candidates have chosen to use public financing. That compares to 75 percent of all Democratic candidates for the House who have chosen to receive financing under the Clean Elections Act.

Among Senate candidates, half the Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats are using the law.

Democratic House Majority Leader Erin Herbig of Belfast says she does not understand opposition to fixing the glitch in the law.

“I think it comes down to a very basic question which is why would you not support Clean Elections?” she says “It takes dark money, it takes out of state money, it takes large donors out of politics.”

But Rep. Jeff Timberlake, a Republican from Turner, has never liked public financing of elections. He says U.S. Supreme Court rulings have made the goal of taking big money out of politics an impossibility.

“You’ve never got the money out of politics,” Timberlake says. “Every PAC in the state of Maine, every special interest group in the state of Maine dumps more money into politics than we can all shake a stick at and it makes no difference which side you are talking about.”

Timberlake says he has offered a compromise that would fix the language, allowing the Ethics Commission to continue to operate. But his plan would not provide what the Commission says is needed to fully fund clean elections candidates this fall. Democrats are refusing to go along.

Meanwhile, supporters of the voter-approved clean elections law are considering legal action to allow the Commission to spend what they need to meet their obligations under the law.

Anna Kellar is the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

“There’s a strong argument to be made to instruct the agency giving out the money to ignore that type and go ahead and fulfill what they owe to candidates.”

Maine voters have contributed more than 45,000 contributions of $5 to candidates who have chosen to run with public financing. Supporters of the law say House Republicans are running the risk of losing support among those voters. They also point out that there are some Republican candidates for the House who have chosen to use the Clean Elections Act, and they say they will also be hurt if the law is not fixed.

This story was originally published June 26, 2018 at 5:19 p.m. ET.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.