Tighten Clean Election Fund loopholes

Maine Sunday Telegram

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Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

The assessment of $45,000 in fines against four people accused of Clean Election Fund violations in January signaled that there were loopholes to close in Maine's campaign law.

A proposal before the Legislature does just that.

The reforms would give the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices another staffer from May 1 through Jan. 31 to track election-year spending. They would establish a $5,000 penalty for misleading voters about who sent campaign literature. They would clarify that treasurers and consultants must also adhere to campaign-spending guidelines and require that Clean Election funds be put into separate bank accounts instead of in personal accounts.

While these changes represent needed accountability checkpoints, the Legislature will betray the Clean Election program if lawmakers fail to repay $4.8 million owed to the campaign fund in this year's budget.

Supporters of the law say there appears to be bipartisan support for returning at least some of the money, but that's not good enough. Interest in the campaign fund is at an all-time high. The ethics commission, which oversees the program, deserves the flexibility that full restitution will provide.

The November elections, however, get closer every day. Candidates are making decisions about how they intend to campaign. Lawmakers could settle people's stomachs with a bipartisan signal that funding will not become part of the budgeting negotiation shenanigans that are now just a month away.

Finally, citizens who support clean elections should remember to check the box at the top of Maine's income tax form when completing their returns.

The checkoff doesn't increase any taxes owed or reduce a refund. It simply directs $3 to a program that is rapidly becoming a national model.