Public Campaign Costs

Publication: 
Bangor Daily News
Section: 
Editorials
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

bangor daily news

With so many Maine residents having declared their ambition to become governor, former Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood might have had the right idea Monday: It's easier for those not running to announce their non-candidacies. But Mr. Chitwood's unusual press conference barely diminishes the potential demand on public financing for the many remaining candidates, a demand that Maine currently may not be able to meet.

Last November, Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, warned lawmakers that their previous transfer of $6.7 million from the Clean Election Fund could leave a shortfall this year. Gov. Baldacci has since returned $2.4 million to the fund, but depending on how many candidates run, that may not be nearly enough.

The math for 2006 is straightforward. Publicly financed candidates in a primary (Two Republicans, Peter Mills and Chandler Woodcock, intend to run with public financing; one, David Emery, does not) can receive as much $450,000 each; all candidates in an open election can receive as much as $1.4 million each.

The calculation gets trickier when trying to decide how many unaffiliated candidates, in addition to the Green Party's Pat LaMarche and, potentially, the Republican, will qualify and use public financing. Maine would be prudent to count on at least four - Nancy Oden, Bobby Mills, Alex Hammer and, perhaps, Barbara Merrill.

That equals $7.7 million. Add in the $4.5 million needed for legislative candidates and costs for personnel and technology to administer the program and the total is $13 million. Maine has $9.9 million set aside in its fund, including the use of a cash balance of $3.1 million. The ethics commission has requested another $2 million from the Legislature, a figure that may be too low. Better that lawmakers return the balance of the money they took earlier, as they promised to do if it were needed.

More broadly, the Legislature this spring should look into the future of public financing, which was approved by voters and is very popular with candidates. Lawmakers will have a better sense as the gubernatorial campaign progresses whether the hurdles for receiving public financing are set appropriately (nonparty members must collect 4,000 signatures and 2,500 $5 contributions). It should assume that candidates will become more skilled at gathering signatures and donations and that the public will become more aware of its role in deciding whether to support a particular candidate.

In 2002, only one general-election candidate for governor used public financing; if four or five do this time, Maine can celebrate that it has created a system to allow more people to run for office and rejoice in the number of choices voters will have. But it also must pay the campaign bill: that means putting enough money in the election fund for 2006 and determining whether and how the public wants to raise at least these revenues for the future.