Capitol Notebook: Voters will decide new campaign funding rules

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Andrew Bossie is an idealist.

The young Caribou native is leading the campaign that aims to strengthen Maine’s Clean Election law.

On Nov. 3, Maine voters will decide on updates to the law that would increase the amount of funding available to candidates for state office who forgo private contributions. It also includes new disclosure requirements for campaign spending and advertising, and increases penalties for Clean Election law violations.

Bossie, 32, is passionate about the issue, and believes the availability of public funds has opened up the Legislature to people from diverse backgrounds.

“We have a very blue-collar Legislature,” Bossie said. “We have more everyday working people as a percentage.”

Maine’s first-in-the-nation Clean Election law, passed by voters in 1996, provides public financing for candidates for the Legislature who gather a sufficient number of qualifying contributions.

But that law, replicated in other states, has been weakened by Supreme Court decisions.

The court paved the way for increased campaign spending in the Citizens United decision, and also nixed Clean Election rules that authorized matching funds for publicly funded candidates outspent by privately funded opponents. Many candidates stopped using Clean Election funds, fearing they would be outspent.

In 2008, 85 percent of Maine legislators used Clean Election funds; in 2014 the figure was closer to 50 percent.

The new proposal gets around the Supreme Court decision by linking increased public funds to a requirement that the candidate obtain additional qualifying contributions at $5 each. A candidate for governor could receive a maximum of $3.2 million, up from the present $1.2 million, if he or she obtained 16,000 qualifying contributions.

For the first time, the proposed law would also mandate the disclosure of donors prior to the gubernatorial inauguration, providing a snapshot of those seeking influence in a new administration.

For viewers of political advertising, the most obvious feature of the new law will be the requirement that independent groups identify their top three donors in all radio, print and television advertising. While these groups can still conceal themselves by creative naming, Bossie said the disclosure will lead viewers to regard the ads skeptically.

The problem of how to fund the additional spending required under the new law is not clearly spelled out.

The proposal directs the Legislature to close unspecified corporate tax loopholes to fund the additional $1 million a year. Those funds would come from ending corporate tax breaks identified as ineffective by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability, but the mechanics are murky.

Out-of-state activists are providing key funding for the campaign.

Sean Eldridge, a gay rights and campaign finance reform activist who ran unsuccessfully for Congress from a Hudson Valley, New York, district, has donated $200,000. J.J. Abrams, the producer of the most recent “Star Trek” movie, has given $100,000. The Maine Education Association gave $75,000. But the Clean Election funding reports also show a large number of smaller donations from Maine.

The widest loophole in the present campaign spending law is not addressed in the ballot question, but was inadvertently corrected by Gov. Paul LePage during the bizarre finale of the last legislative session. Because of his unprecedented and later rejected interpretation of the Constitution, he failed to veto many laws, including one that prevents publicly funded candidates from running a political action committee on the side. (Privately funded candidates can still run PACS.)

Since LePage views the Clean Election system as “welfare for politicians,” his accidental fix of a flaw in the current law is ironic, at least.

Bossie and other backers of the new Clean Election proposal don’t expect it to fix every problem, but believe that it will shore up the law, increase transparency, and ensure that continued diversity in the Legislature.

“Someone is going to own government,” Bossie said. “Either us everyday people or elections bought and paid for by wealthy special interests.”

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.