Two Republican state House candidates pleaded with the Maine Ethics Commission Wednesday to come up with a plan to fix a severe imbalance in the distribution of public campaign funds.
It’s the result of Republican Gov. Paul LePage's refusal to release over $1 million in funds already budgeted for Maine’s Clean Election program, and the House Republicans' unwillingness to fix a drafting error that has frozen another $3 million to qualifying candidates.
LePage's move to single-handedly block funds for Maine's Clean Election program has held up money owed to more than 100 legislative candidates and one who is running for the office of governor. The Governor’s authority to do that is at the center of a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court that could be decided next week.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are refusing to fix a drafting error that could release more funds until a dealing involving unrelated issues can be worked out.
But some candidates affected by the governing paralysis are choosing not to direct their frustration at either LePage or the House GOP. Instead, they showed up at a Maine Ethics Commission meeting and urged the four member panel to intervene.
"She has been handed $5,075. I have been handed zero," Mark Andre, a Republican House candidate, told the commission Wednesday.
Andre is running for the House district that includes Waterville and several surrounding towns. He narrowly won his publically-funded primary campaign and, because of the ongoing dispute, now has no money to run his November campaign.
His Democratic challenger, Colleen Madigan, did did get a check for just over $5,000. That prompted Andre to ask the commission to allow him to go around the rules and do traditional fundraising to loan himself money — anything.
"I understand this is a stretch, but I'm asking you to consider the harm on the other side, which is the complete inequitable funding of my campaign versus an opponent. And we are identical," Andre said.
Jane Crosby Giles, a Republican state Senate candidate, had a similar message. Giles was fortunate to receive some clean election funding before the spigot was turned off, but her opponent, House majority leader Erin Herbig, beat her in the race to get supplemental payments — payments that Giles could get if the funding issue is resolved.
"I'm thinking forward to November, and I just want to proceed as a candidate in the race, that it's being done in the fairest and most inequitable way possible. And right now, it doesn't feel that way at all," Giles said.
Members of the Ethics Commission were sympathetic, but at the moment, they say, powerless.
Chair of the Commission William Lee says both candidates, and probably others, are casualties in a dispute that the courts, and possibly the Legislature, could fix.
"I really hope that the court can solve that in this next week because, on a personal level, I feel like you've had your hands tied, most unfairly," he said.
If neither the drafting error nor the Governor’s freeze on funding distribution are resolved, the commission could be forced to make a tough decision: whether to try to correct the current inequities by allowing clean election candidates to raise money from private citizens and businesses.
Bob Howe, an attorney for the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, urged the commission not to do that.
"I think there are number of people in the Legislature who would only be too happy to see that result,” said Howe. “We think it's legally not sound to allow traditional fundraising and, furthermore, really violate the principle of the Maine Clean Elections Act.”
In other words, Howe and others believe the commission could inadvertently help LePage and others achieve what they've been trying to do for some time —undermine confidence in the Clean Election System and potentially kill it.
The commission says it will wait for the court's decision.
A previous version of this story used Jane Crosby. Her name has been updated as Jane Crosby Giles.