A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Maine Ethics Commission can distribute public campaign funds to Clean Elections candidates, even without the approval of Gov. Paul LePage, who will likely appeal the decision. The outcome of the case could have broad political ramifications.
In his decision, Justice William Stokes focused on the unique nature of the Clean Elections system and how it is funded. The usual state financial procedures, he ruled, do not apply, and the state Ethics Commission has authority over public financing of elections.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections lawyer John Brautigam says it’s a clear win.
“This is an order that within three business days the funds have to be released,” says Brautigam. “They cannot any longer be blocked by the administration, and we can get back to an orderly campaign and the will of the voters, you know, will be honored and respected going forward.”
The court decision applies specifically to about $1.4 million that the Ethics Commission wanted distributed before the end of the budget year June 30. The Court says there is enough money in the Clean Elections Fund to make payments that are required by law to some-175 qualified candidates. When there are sufficient revenues on hand, the court ruled that distribution of funds under the Clean Elections Act are: “not subject to any discretion on the part of any executive officer.”
Brautigam believes the ruling means the Commission can distribute the rest of the money owed to candidates without further legislative action. If necessary, he says the citizens group will take that issue to court.
“Candidates are entitled to this money, we now have a ruling from the court,” says Brautigam. “Time is of the essence, and further delays are really harmful to the nature of our campaigns and our democracy. And we will be asking for a final solution as soon as humanly possible.”
If Brautigam is correct, the current stalemate over Clean Election funding in the legislature may finally end. House republicans have refused to support fixing a drafting error in the law that is intended to guide allocation of these funds, and, if the Superior Court decision stands, they will lose their leverage in seeking passage of other legislation, including a measure to make Maine’s tax law conform with the federal code.
Updated 4:58 p.m.