AUGUSTA, Maine --An advocacy group joined Maine's Senate president Wednesday in calling on the Legislature to restore millions of dollars to the Maine Clean Election Fund to make sure there's enough money for this year's publicly financed political races.
The nonpartisan Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, citing warnings from state election oversight officials, said there might be a shortfall in the fund for candidates in this year's gubernatorial and legislative races.
The group said money has been taken from the Clean Election Fund in recent years to pay for other state programs, and the Legislature should now pay back what is owed. Maine Citizens led a 1996 campaign that led to a citizen initiative authorizing taxpayer-financed campaign funding for candidates who meet eligibility requirements.
"If we don't do it now, the fund could be out of money," said Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport. "We must continue to fully fund clean elections. I insist that this year's budget provide the resources necessary to support all candidates who qualify."
The Appropriations Committee held a hearing for Wednesday afternoon on a bill sponsored by Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, to ensure full funding for Clean Election races.
The bill calls for the transfer of $2 million from the general fund to the Clean Election Fund before July 31, 2006, to assure gubernatorial and legislative candidates in the 2006 elections that there will be sufficient funding.
The Clean Election Act has proven to be popular with legislative candidates, and a half-dozen gubernatorial candidates have said they are seeking public funding.
Of Maine's sitting lawmakers, 29 of the 35 senators and 118 of the 151 representatives were elected as Clean Election candidates, for a combined 79 percent, according to the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections says $6.75 million has been removed from the fund, and lawmakers returned $2.4 million last year, leaving about $4.35 million -- without interest -- to be returned.
Supporters of what has been model legislation for other states say the Clean Election system encourages more people to participate in politics while discouraging influence by special interests.
"It worked very well," former state Sen. Norman Ferguson, a Republican from Hanover and one of the first Senate candidates to qualify for public campaign funding, told a news conference. "It got private funding out of the process and evened the playing field."