AUGUSTA - The ghost of the largest funding abuse in Maine Clean Elections Act history hung in the air Wednesday as members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee entertained a $5.7 million emergency funding request to prop up the potentially beleaguered public campaign finance program.
Representatives and supporters of the program, overseen by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said they currently have about $3.5 million on hand for the June primary and November election cycles.
Jean Ginn Marvin, chairman of the ethics commission told lawmakers Wednesday that eight gubernatorial candidates could create a $9.3 million demand on the fund in addition to about $6 million needed for races in the state's 186 legislative districts.
Currently, eight of 14 Mainers who have announced their intention to run for governor plan to pursue public financing to underwrite their expenses.
While all are not expected to collect enough $5 contributions and signatures to qualify for public funding, the fund's supporters feel they must prepare to accommodate the full slate of potential candidates.
Ginn Marvin, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and other supporters, understand the size of their request could be challenging for the Legislature, but they also reminded the lawmakers that the state has borrowed $6.7 million from the fund since 2001 to balance the budget.
Although $2.4 million was repaid last year, proponents maintained Wednesday that now would be the appropriate time to repay the outstanding $4.8 million in principal and interest owed to the fund.
If the state were to retire its debt, Ginn Marvin said only about $900,000 would be needed to ensure the fund would not go dry this year.
"Recognizing that it is difficult to project the cost of the program for the candidates for governor, the commission believes it is now necessary to return all of the funds transferred [by the Legislature]," she said. "There is simply no way to accurately project what the required funding for these races will be. Naturally, if there are fewer candidates who qualify, we would be more than willing to make the money available for other expenditures."
The state makes an annual $2 million transfer to the fund, which also receives thousands of $3 contributions each year from Mainers who choose to donate by filling in a check-off box on their state income tax forms.
Barbara Burt, of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said taxpayers never intended to see the fund used as a "line of credit" for other state priorities.
"They didn't check 'yes' [on their tax returns] for funding other programs, they checked 'yes' for funding this program," Burt said. "We believe it is perfectly reasonable to ask for the payment of a debt such as this. There is a budget surplus at this time and while the governor has already proposed how to spend the surplus, we feel that debt repayment should be among the highest priorities."
No one on the Appropriations Committee suggested the requested funding would not materialize, but there were concerns raised about fraud and abuses of Clean Elections funds in two 2004 legislative races in western Maine.
Last month, the ethics commission assessed $45,000 in fines alone against several of the participants in scams that bilked the state out of more than $40,000 in taxpayer dollars.
The violators are awaiting enforcement action by the attorney general's office according to Ginn Marvin. Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, wondered if the ethics committee's experience would make it more difficult for others to abuse the system.
"These folks were not very credible," Nass said to Ginn Marvin. "How confident are you that somebody that does a little bit better at developing a better story will also be able to misuse use the system?"
"It is possible to spend money inappropriately and make receipts to do things," she said. "But [the ethics commission staff] has a pretty keen eye for that sort of thing and as a result of the press we got [from those incidents], it tells any would-be possible cheaters that we're watching and we're going to catch them."
In response to a question from Rep. Ben Dudley, D-Portland, Ginn Marvin said the Clean Elections Fund could probably get the state through the primary season before it was depleted.
The response prompted Dudley to suggest "hypothetically" it was conceivable the Legislature "had time" to consider additional funding requests at a later special legislative session.
"I think I would be really uncomfortable with that scenario just because you wouldn't even be in session and it would be a pretty expensive fix," Ginn Marvin said.
Speaking in favor of the funding request, Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, told the lawmakers she did not believe the issue before them had anything to do with the merits of the Clean Elections Fund or whether any of the lawmakers "agreed with it or disagreed with it."
"It's not a debate on the two people who abused this fund, there were 308 others that went 'clean' and out of those the vast majority were very truthful in all their reporting," she said. "It shouldn't be a debate on how many people are running for governor. Previous legislators took money from this election fund. We have a short legislative session and I don't think it's prudent to call the Legislature back into special session for an item that is being brought to your attention right now. We need to take a proactive approach on this - not reactive."