About the SeriesThe Money in Politics Project is a series of twelve reports about the role and effect of money on Maine politics. The reports combine a review of publicly available campaign finance data with on-the-ground analysis of how money influences Maine's elections, government, and public policy. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections launched this project because money in politics is an issue of vital concern to the people of Maine, one that goes to the heart of our democratic system.
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Does campaign cash help explain the survival of a "risky" tax refund program?
It is a common refrain in Augusta: "All the fat has been trimmed from the budget. Every program has been scrutinized and cut to the bone."
But, despite the all the belt-tightening, the state continues to award millions in refunds and tax exemptions each year through programs that have been called "risky" by an independent non-partisan watchdog because they provide no proven benefit to the public.
Two tax benefit programs repeatedly questioned by independent observers outside Augusta are the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement and the Business Equipment Tax Exemption ("BETR/BETE").
In the case of BETR/BETE, the public may have reason to wonder whether political favoritism curried by campaign contributions has been a factor in the creation and endurance of a "risky" program.
MCCE takes no position on the merits of BETR/BETE. And there is no smoking gun, quid pro quo here: no money has traded hands to create or perpetuate these benefits.
But public policy should be made on the basis of a rational assessment of the costs and benefits of any given option. That process should not be corrupted by private special interest campaign money, and the public should have full confidence in the integrity of the democratic process and its policy outcomes.
The ongoing story of BETR/BETE and the cash contributions made by beneficiaries of the program is a story the public should hear and understand.
- Twenty-three out of the top 25 beneficiaries of the BETR/BETE program are active campaign contributors, giving over $2.3 million since 2000.
- These 25 entities received over $138 million in tax relief under BETR/BETE in the last four years.
- BETR/BETE has endured for years as a state economic development policy despite an independent non-political report published in 2006 labeling the program "a high risk" on eight out of thirteen tests commonly applied to such programs.
- BETR/BETE beneficiaries contributed 19.4% of their political giving to caucus PACs, leadership PACs, or party committees.
- Partly because of Maine's relatively low candidate contribution limits, only 2.1% of the money given by these businesses went directly to candidate campaigns.