Time to reimburse the Clean Election Fund

Portland Press Herald

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Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Maine's Clean Election Fund has become a national model.

Arizona has copied our publicly funded election campaign system. California and Connecticut are working on their own versions.

The program has become quite popular in Maine. In 2002, 62 percent of candidates for the Legislature used it. That rose to 78 percent in 2004.

This year, the Clean Election Fund is so popular that it risks running out of money. But not because of bad budgeting by Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

In recent years, the Legislature raided the fund for $6.725 million to help balance the budget, with the understanding that it would be paid back when needed. Last year, the Legislature restored $2.4 million, leaving an outstanding balance of $4.3 million, not including interest.

Under state law, the Clean Election Fund gives each qualified party candidate for governor $200,000 for a primary campaign. Each qualified candidate in the general election will get $400,000 heading into the 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 more than three gubernatorial candidates qualify for public campaign financing, the commission, which administers the program, will have to ask for additional money during the 2006 legislative session.

The money needs to be there soon to give candidates certainty that it will be there when they need it. Otherwise they may feel compelled to raise money privately.

There may never be a time when advocates of publicly financed elections won't have to worry about keeping the program funded. A system that tends to level the playing field will naturally be viewed with ambivalence by the party in power, which is best positioned to capitalize on private campaign contributions. Legislators most tied to big donors are particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking.

To deal with the potential shortfall, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices can give itself some breathing room this year by tightening the flow of matching funds to campaign coffers. The commission could also request permission to borrow against next year's annual $2 million allocation from the General Fund, but this is a bad habit to form.

The better solution is a simple: When Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature raided the fund, they promised that it was only a loan.

Fine. Now pay it back.