What a difference publicly funded elections makes.
We are legislators from Maine, a Republican and a Democrat, and we know what we are talking about. We both ran for our House seats under the state's Clean Elections program, which provides public funding for candidates who raise a specified number of $5 contributions from constituents and who agree to abide by spending limits. Maine's Clean Elections program, in place since 2000, is similar to the system being considered this week by Connecticut's General Assembly.
We are happy to say that public funding has given us the freedom to spend more time with our constituents discussing important issues. We are no longer stuck in the "dialing for dollars" game, in which we would need to spend long hours on the phone asking special interest donors and lobbyists to contribute to our campaigns.
Here in Maine, we have seen direct results from this severing of ties between special interest donors and the Legislature. In 2000, the Maine Legislature approved a daring new pharmaceutical program that gives families the chance to buy drugs at a deep discount. The law was upheld by the Supreme Court and went into effect in January 2004.
In 2003, the legislature approved a groundbreaking health reform bill known as the Dirigo Health Act, named after the state motto, meaning "I direct," and designed to provide health insurance to all Maine residents. Its primary feature is a health plan, DirgoChoice, that includes new controls on health care costs and initiatives to encourage high-quality care, as well as subsidizing premiums for those who cannot afford to pay. Publicly funded legislators were free to support this legislation without any concern for the big-money special interests that might oppose such a law.
Maine has seen no influx of frivolous candidates. The qualifying requirements are high enough that the great majority of candidates are serious, capable people.
"Fears that clean money would be tantamount to an incumbent protection act are unfounded, as are, as near as we can tell, objections that money would be used by fringe candidates who would do nothing but feed at the public trough," concluded University of Wisconsin political scientists in a recent study. As in any system, there will be some candidates who stretch and break the rules. However, a strong enforcement system protects the Maine Clean Elections program from abuse.
Clean elections are popular among legislators in Maine. A full 83 percent of our state Senate and 77 percent of the House ran "clean." Each year the proportion of lawmakers elected using the system has increased from the previous election.
Could what works in Maine work in Connecticut? We think so. One of us, John Brautigam, previously worked in the Connecticut legislature as an assistant to the then-majority leader. The other, Jim Annis, lived in Connecticut and served on the Wallingford school board for 12 years. We know Connecticut and we know Maine, and we think that Connecticut is ready for publicly financed elections.
The legislature and the governor should seize the opportunity to join not just Maine but also several other states and localities across the country that are establishing versions of publicly financed elections, including Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore. Clean elections are a proven, practical reform that will make Connecticut government accountable to its voters.
Jim Annis is a Republican serving his third term in the Maine Legislature. John Brautigam is a Democrat serving his first term in the Maine Legislature.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant