Lawmakers should restore millions to clean-election fund

Kennebec Journal

Kennebec Journal

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Maine's clean-election fund has been ravaged in recent years to help balance the state budget.

It is time for lawmakers to restore funding to the program that they and voters supported, that has worked well for a decade and that helps politicians remain honest.

In 1996, Mainers adopted the Maine Clean Election Act, which allows candidates for state office to use public money to run their campaigns.

To become eligible for the public funding, candidates must demonstrate that they have community support by collecting a minimum number of $5 checks or money orders payable to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Candidates for governor need 2,500 checks to be eligible for the program, while Senate candidates need 150 and House candidates 50.

Once a candidate begins receiving clean-election funding, he or she cannot accept private contributions.

Since 2001, the Legislature has taken $6.7 million from the clean-election fund to fill gaps in the state budget. Since then, lawmakers have given back only $2.4 million.

That has left the fund with a balance of almost $7.4 million, which includes the $250,000 or so that taxpayers give each year by checking off the box on state income tax forms asking that $3 go to the fund.

While $7.4 million is a lot of money, it might not be enough to satisfy the fund's purpose now or in the future. It depends on the number of candidates for governor or the Legislature who apply and qualify for public campaign dollars.

It would be a violation of the voters' intent if there were not enough money to help fund every qualifying candidate who seeks to use the system.

A bill before lawmakers calls for restoring $2 million to the supplemental budget to help replenish the clean-election fund to ensure there will be enough money for this year's elections.

Lawmakers should support the bill.

Mainers did not authorize the Clean Election Act of 1996 so there would be a kitty from which the governor and lawmakers could draw when in need of cash to fix budget shortfalls.

The fund was created so political candidates could run for office without being influenced by money from certain people, businesses or organizations. The theory being that that money from private donors can influence how candidates or officeholders think and act or how they vote on legislation.

The fund is meant to perpetuate Maine's history of honest, independent, service-minded politicians who work for the greater public good.

By having access to public-campaign funding, it is less likely that those who seek or hold office will feel beholden to specific supporters.

It makes for better, more-honest and more-productive government when special-interest money is kept out of the mix -- as much as possible -- or when politicians need not fear that certain factions or organizations will turn against them or withdraw support in future elections.

State lawmakers are responsible for carrying out the will of the voters. This requires that the Legislature return $2 million to the clean-election fund.