It's time to pay off old debt

Lewiston Sun Journal

sun jorrnal

Maine's Clean Election Fund is in danger of running out of money.

The fund, which provides public financing for state candidates who qualify and agree to spending limits, was raided several years ago to shore up a shaky budget.

With the entire Legislature and the Blaine House up for grabs this year, the fund needs the borrowed money restored. Otherwise, the potential shortfall could act as a disincentive for people seeking office - if they can't be certain the money will be available, why should they participate in the system?

In 2001, the state borrowed $6.725 million from the Clean Election Fund. Last year, the Legislature put back $2.4 million, which leaves the fund more than $4.3 million short of what it should be.

It would be easy to say the Clean Election Fund has become a victim of its own success. The number of candidates running as clean candidates has increased substantially, from 62 percent in 2002 to 78 percent in 2004. This year, it could top 80 percent, an amazing accomplishment.

It would also be unfair. The state's Clean Election law created a funding mechanism that could meet the demand of increased participation. The law requires the Legislature to invest $2 million a year in the fund. It also raises money through the checkoff on state tax forms and from the qualifying contributions that candidates must gather to receive public funding. A candidate for governor must collect 2,500 $5 checks made out to the fund. For a state Senate candidate, it's 150, and for the House it's 50. That money adds up.

The contributions require candidates to demonstrate that they have a reasonable level of support before they can receive public money. For some of the lesser-known candidates running for governor this year, the hurdle has been high enough to force them out of public financing.

So far, there are six candidates for governor running as Clean Election candidates (Alex Hammer, David John Jones, Pat LaMarche, state Rep. Barbara Merrill, state Sen. Peter Mills and state Sen. Chandler Woodcock). Gov. John Baldacci, former Rep. David Emery, Christopher Miller, Bobby Mills, Nancy Oden and Robert Bizier are running traditional campaigns.

Those who qualify will receive $200,000 for their primary campaign and $400,000 for the general election, plus matching money of up to $1.05 million depending upon spending by their opponents.

Maine's public financing of campaigns is a model other states have mimicked in an attempt to lessen the impact of money on politics. Running as a Clean candidate requires a campaign dedicated to grass-roots activism and getting to know voters. It also means that once elected, lawmakers don't owe a strong allegiance to big contributors.

The program encourages people to run who might never have considered the possibility. It opens the doors of public service to more diverse candidates and gives voters more choices on Election Day.

Members of the Legislature generally understand that the Clean Election Fund faces a problem unless the money that has been borrowed is given back. But so far that hasn't translated into action.

There's a bill that would put $2 million back into the fund. When it comes up for debate, we encourage members to instead put back the entire $4.3 million.

The state's Clean Election law is popular because it works. The Legislature must pay off its old debt.