Tighten standards for public funding in governor's race

Kennebec Journal

the kj

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Maine's Clean Election Act, a taxpayer-funded campaign system approved a decade ago by voters, was designed to encourage more candidates to run -- by removing financial barriers to mounting a campaign -- and to diminish the influence of big money on Maine politics and government. It has provided public money to finance candidates throughout the state during the last four election cycles.

By all accounts, the legislation has brought new blood into the Legislature. Candidates from across the state have acknowledged that they would not have run were it not for public financing of their campaigns. When it comes to House and Senate races, the act appears to be doing what it set out to do.

But serious issues have emerged about the act's funding of candidates for governor.

Seven candidates are running for that office in this election. To get public funding, a candidate must collect at least 2,500 donations of $5 each. While Gov. John Baldacci has chosen to use private funds for his re-election campaign, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees the public financing of campaigns, has approved three candidates who met the requirements for public funding: Rep. Barbara Merrill, Sen. Chandler Woodcock and Green Party candidate Pat LaMarche. A fourth candidate, former Rep. John Michael of Auburn, is trying to get approved for funding even though he submitted the required signatures one minute beyond the legal deadline.

It is Michael, an eccentric, unpredictable and unconventional candidate whose past includes legislative censure for his tirade against two female colleagues, whose presence has provoked concern. This week, House Speaker John Richardson suggested that the eligibility standards should be tightened in order to make it harder for "fringe" candidates to qualify for public funds. Providing public funding to campaigns of candidates with little chance of winning, said Richardson, "could sour the public's perception of the Clean Election program."

But who's to say who is a "fringe" candidate? If Mr. Michael were speaker, then perhaps he would deem Sen. Woodcock and Rep. Merrill "fringe" candidates. "Fringe" candidates may very well be the ones to speak the truth about issues that are not being dealt with by more mainstream candidates; they can perform a powerful public service by holding other candidates accountable. Once you get into the business of public financing -- which this newspaper has supported -- you get into the dangerous territory of regulating whose speech is acceptable and whose speech isn't, and that is inherently a challenge to freedom of speech. That disturbs us, but because the greater public good is served by public financing, we believe it is a necessary compromise -- and of course, nothing stops someone from running for election without public financing. Nevertheless, while we understand the speaker's concern, we regret his choice of phrase.

The question raised by Rep. Michael's attempt to get public financing is not whether we pay for "fringe" candidates to run for governor. The question is one of legitimacy. Public financing requires a candidate to go on the stump and convince 2,500 people that he or she is a candidate worth supporting with at least $5 and that he or she will address meaningful issues.

Speaker Richardson has suggested a higher threshold needs to be met by publicly-financed candidates. That's a good idea. It's frankly going to be harder for a candidate to convince 5,000 people of their legitimacy than 2,500 people, and it's a good vetting method to ensure that those candidates on whom the public expends funds will make reasonable use of those funds. We would encourage the legislature to consider modifications to the Clean Election Act to promote that legitimacy -- but we hope that their consideration will remain free of political agendas or judgments about the content of a candidate's speech.