Before more than a dozen candidates for governor decided to run on public funding, Maine lawmakers had borrowed enough from the Clean Election Fund so that even if the candidates got the required signatures and $5 contributions, the state no longer had enough money to cover their campaigns, as promised.
Most of the candidates, it seems, will not reach the required 2,500 donations to qualify for up to $1.4 million in a general election. Even so, the state should be prepared to fund any candidate who does meet the standards because fairness to the candidates and the integrity of the system demand it. Between 2001 and 2003, lawmakers borrowed $6.8 million from the fund, but have since returned $2.4 million. What's left to be paid is $4.4 million plus interest, a total of $4.8 million.
A bill heard in the Legislature recently gets Maine part way there. LD 1941 restores $2 million of the borrowed money. That's a good start, but not enough to ensure the system will be properly funded, as lawmakers promised candidates, as the 360,000 residents who passed the measure in 1998 instructed and as the thousands of Maine taxpayers who check of the $3 donation on their tax forms assume.
The problem with borrowing the money was well known when it was taken, which is why lawmakers at the time said they would return it if needed. Now it is.
That is the correct message from the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and from the League of Women Voters of Maine, among others. (The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election practices goes further. It told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee last week that if eight gubernatorial candidates ran on public money and legislative races had the usual turnout of Clean candidates, the fund would need $5.7 million more, rather than the $4.8 million.)
The Ethics Commission is being prudent - even if the fund doesn't receive approval for $5.7 million, lawmakers should be clear that they intend to find funding for all who qualify. That may turn out to be more or well short of the money borrowed but not repaid, but at least that figure should be approved by the Legislature. Plus interest.