The Legislature gambles with Clean Elections

Portland Press Herald
Monday, April 10, 2006

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Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Maine's Clean Election Fund program is lauded as a national model.

So why does the Legislature keep dissing it?

Several years ago, lawmakers began treating the Clean Election program like a rainy day fund, siphoning off more than $4 million to smooth over budget shortfalls.

Since then the program has grown in popularity to the point where the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices expects that 80 percent or more of all candidates standing for election in November will request public funding.

However, this month the Legislature decided to repay only $1.2 million of the $4.8 million it owes the program. Lawmakers gambled that only three gubernatorial candidates will qualify.

Sure, the budget is not perfect. It's a political instrument. Obtaining a two-thirds majority required a number of unpalatable compromises. But the Legislature's debt to the fund isn't new. Nor is lawmakers' irresponsible failure to repay their obligation.

The Clean Election Fund gives each qualified party candidate for governor $200,000 for a primary campaign. Qualified primary winners get $400,000 for the general election campaign.

In order to allow publicly funded candidates to compete with big-moneyed opponents, the Clean Election Fund provides matching funds up to a total of $600,000 in the primary and up to a total of $1.2 million in the general election.

If it turns out that only one Republican, one Green and one unenrolled candidate seek to run a Clean Election campaign, the fund will probably have enough money to cover. If a second unenrolled candidate qualifies, it likely will not.

By not repaying its debt to the Clean Election Fund, lawmakers are betting that the fund will squeak through.

That's a gamble we wished they hadn't made.