Boost Clean Elections Fund, don't drain it

Portland Press Herald

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Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Continuing shortfalls in the fund that finances Maine's Clean Elections Act are betraying the central principle this groundbreaking law established - candidates for public office should run and serve without being obligated to any contributor.

It doesn't help that the fund, created by a citizen-initiated referendum in 1996, has been depleted by more than $6 million in the past few years because the Legislature has taken money out of it to finance other state programs.

Yet, in the 2004 campaign, fully 78 percent of candidates for state office ran as Clean Elections candidates, relying entirely on public funding to support their primary and general election campaigns.

That dichotomy is more than odd, it is self-defeating. How can any group rely on a particular source of funding, then raid it for other purposes, and still say it is devoted to the principle it is intended to uphold?

Well, they can say it, but their actions speak far louder than their words. It's time to stop using this program as an alternative to the Rainy Day Fund and give it the fiscal stability it deserves.

To his credit, Gov. Baldacci makes an attempt at doing that in his recent budget proposal.

The Clean Elections fund is projected to need $10.3 million in 2006, when voters will elect a governor and all 186 members of the Legislature. Yet, based on current levels of funding, projections are that the fund will only total $5.7 million, a shortfall of $4.6 million, nearly 40 percent less than it will need to cover candidates' potential requests.

Baldacci wants to add $2.4 million this fiscal year, cutting the shortfall by half, and said last week he would seek more funding later to make up the rest of the difference.

That's all good, but the governor can only make proposals. Legislators actually have to vote them into effect when they pass a budget, which could well come by the end of March.

If the past is any guide, the temptation will be to draw down the fund rather than build it up. That would leave repairing the shortfall to the Legislature's second session next year.

Gov. Baldacci is attempting to impose a bit of responsibility on the very people who should be the most conscious of the need for it.

Will they be? That's between them and their consciences - and the voters who approved the Clean Elections Act and supported people who drew on it for the funds that got them into office.

As was noted, the principle behind the law is a very good one. Without the commitment of adequate funding, however, it will be good and hollow.