Clean Elections law mostly working well, so leave it alone

Portland Press Herald
Jim Brunelle

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Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

A bizarre hearing before the State Ethics Commission last week all but guarantees there will be renewed efforts to repeal or radically overhaul Maine's campaign finance system when the Legislature reconvenes in January. The impulse should be resisted.

The commission is investigating possible abuses of the system in the 2004 legislative elections. It got plenty of evidence something was amiss with at least a couple of taxpayer-funded races.

The suspicion is that the two independent candidates were talked into running by political operatives, who then proceeded to mismanage the campaigns while pocketing much of the state funding involved.

One of the candidates was a self-described pothead who says she ran to promote legalization of marijuana. The other was so disengaged that she couldn't name her election opponents for the commission.

The latter candidate qualified for public funding by collecting the minimum of 50 contributions of $5 required to prove that she was a serious House candidate. But the evidence suggests nearly half of that came from just three people, including her campaign manager and treasurer.

The former treasurer blamed the former manager for most of the problems. The manager, a political consultant who may have been involved in other questionable campaign activities in the past, has dropped out of sight and did not testify at the hearing.

All of this gives ammunition to those who have opposed Maine's pioneering campaign finance reform from the outset. A fresh attack on it at the next legislative session is almost a given.

Chances are, however, it will survive. The reform was an initiated referendum proposal approved in 1996, upheld a federal court ruling in 1999 and taking effect in 2000. A voluntary system - to protect it from First Amendment challenges - it requires candidates accepting public financing to forego any private contributions beyond the qualifying seed money and in that sense to run a "clean" campaign.

In the nine years since the system was approved in referendum, critics have complained it was misleading to call it the Clean Elections Act and that voters would not have approved it if they had realized it involved public funding of political races.

But there was never any secret made of the nature of the law in the campaign leading up to the November 1996 referendum. And the question facing voters on the ballot couldn't have been plainer: "Do you want Maine to adopt new campaign finance laws and give public funding to candidates for state office who agree to spending limits?" A heavy turnout of voters answered "yes" to that question by a decisive margin of 56-44 percent.

Bills to repeal the system have been filed at every legislative session since its passage. But from the time of its approval at the polls it has grown steadily more popular with candidates, including some who initially decried the idea of using taxpayer money for political campaigns.

The number of primary candidates qualifying for public funding went from 31 percent in the first year it took effect to 50 percent in 2002 and 71 percent last year. Currently, about a third of the state representatives and half of the senators were elected as clean-election candidates.

It's been slower to catch on at the statewide level. Both major-party candidates for governor in 2002, Democrat John Baldacci and Republican Peter Cianchette, chose to run the old-fashioned way with private funding. Green Independent Jonathan Carter became the first publicly funded gubernatorial candidate in a general election under the new law.

Gov. Baldacci apparently has decided to run with private funding once again, passing up a chance to embrace a leadership role in the area of campaign finance reform.

Meanwhile, with Cianchette having dropped out this time around, it appears that several Republican candidates are prepared to run under the clean elections banner, including state Sens. Peter Mills of Cornville and Chandler Woodcock of Farmington, and Bangor businessman Stephen Stimpson.

The fact is, despite aberrations such as those that surfaced during the ethics commission hearings, the Clean Elections Act is working.

It has allowed more citizens to compete for public office while freeing them from obligation to individual and special-interest sponsors. And it has rescued the election process from an essentially corrupt system that forced candidates to spend much of their time forging money links with well-heeled contributors, stifled competition and gave lopsided advantage to incumbent officeholders.

It may need a little tinkering to combat some abuses, but otherwise it should be left alone to serve the public interest as intended.

Jim Brunelle comments on politics and other issues for the Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at: