Fund Clean Elections

Lewiston Sun Journal
Friday, October 22, 2004

sun journal

Maine's Clean Election Act is in trouble. Like the rest of state government, the agency that administers the program is short of cash and projecting a deficit.

A memo from the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices warns of a $1.5 million shortfall for the public financing of candidates for the Legislature in the 2004 campaign cycle.

The agency says it expects to have $3.9 million on hand, but believes demand for expenditures will approach $5.4 million. The commission arrived at the deficit number using a couple of assumptions: More people will run for office and more will seek public financing than in 2002.

It's a worst case scenario that depends on a lot of things to happen. But none of the assumptions are out of line. In 2002, 62 percent of candidates for state office participated in the clean elections program. The commission estimates that about 76 percent of candidates will sign up next year. The program is popular and the estimate seems realistic.

A change in the law also will affect the amount of money needed in public financing. A new provision of the act provides money for candidates who are hit with "issue ads" within three weeks of an election. In the past, ads that did not expressly advocate for or against a candidate - but certainly sent a message about them - did not trigger matching funds. Beginning in 2004, they will.

Maine's Clean Election Act was passed by state voters in 1996, when it received 56 percent of the vote statewide. The law created a voluntary system of public financing for candidates for governor and the Legislature, improved campaign finance disclosure rules and strengthened enforcement.

Each year, the Legislature appropriates $2 million for the program, but has raided the fund to make up for budget troubles in other areas. Since 2002, about $6.7 million has been removed.

Public financing takes some of the money-chase pressures off candidates seeking office and reduces the influence of large contributors. The system also helps level the playing field for challengers and would-be lawmakers who do not have access to personal wealth or friends with deep pockets.

The financial difficulties facing the state are serious. Every dollar that is spent must be accounted for and used wisely. Helping to ensure that elections are conducted as cleanly and as fairly as possible is worth our time and money.

If the fund were to run short of cash and couldn't meet its obligations, office seekers would be free to solicit contributions and the spirit of public financing for elections would be lost. The system would disintegrate.

Ideally, the commission could wait until April 15 to make its budget request. That's the deadline for candidates to sign up to participate. Unfortunately, at that point the budget process in Augusta will be nearing completion.

We urge Gov. John Baldacci to include $1.5 million for clean elections in his supplemental budget. The program is worth the investment.