Popularity may drain Maine's Clean Election Fund

Portland Press Herald
Press Clips
Paul Carrier

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Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

AUGUSTA - Using tax dollars to run political campaigns is so popular in the governor's race this year that the Clean Election Fund, which provides the money, will run dry if most of the candidates who want to use it qualify to do so. Seven of the 12 announced candidates for governor hope to get optional public financing. The other five, including Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, plan to run the old-fashioned way - by raising money privately from contributors.

The Clean Election Fund should have almost $10 million on hand through June 30, 2007. That may be enough to cover all of the program's costs, including hundreds of publicly funded legislative races this year, if there are only three tax-funded gubernatorial candidates. Officials estimate three candidates would cost the state $4.9 million, but add a fourth at a projected cost of $1.4 million and that would break the bank.

The fact that so many people are vying for the Blaine House this year is not unusual. Thirteen candidates had registered with the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which administers the Clean Election Fund, by this point in the election cycle four years ago. By the election that November, the field had shrunk to four - Baldacci, one Republican, one Green Independent and one independent.

What is unusual this time around is the number of candidates who want public financing. In 2002, only two of the 13 declared candidates received tax dollars. This year, more than half of the candidates hope to go that route.

As a result, the ethics commission will have to decide soon whether to gamble that the field of publicly funded candidates will shrink enough for the state to cover the budgeted costs, or err on the side of caution by seeking extra cash now.

Experts say there is more interest in public financing now than when it was first made available in 2002 because the novel idea didn't catch on right away.

"It was too new" to be popular in the last gubernatorial campaign, said Joanne D'Arcangelo of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, a group that champions the Clean Election Act.

Any innovation takes time to build momentum, and now candidates see the Clean Election Fund as an attractive alternative to private fundraising, especially if they lack the resources to raise a lot on their own, said Marvin Druker, a political scientist at Lewiston-Auburn College.

"It's very beneficial," in part because it allows candidates to run without being beholden to private contributors, said Alex Hammer, an independent candidate. As independent David Jones put it: "It gives me more time to focus on the issues" rather than fundraising.

It remains to be seen whether the seven gubernatorial candidates will qualify for public funds, or even win a spot on the ballot. Those are not easy tasks.

Each party candidate - Democrat, Republican or Green Independent - must collect the signatures of 2,000 registered voters within their party by March 15 just to get on the primary ballot in June. Independents need the signatures of any 4,000 voters by June 1 if they want to appear on the ballot in November.

To get money from the Clean Election Fund, each candidate also must collect 2,500 $5 "qualifying contributions," or $12,500, from registered voters. The contributions, which go to the Clean Election Fund, must be by check or money order, no cash.

Candidates in the process of collecting that money say it is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that requires a small army of volunteers. Independents have a June 2 deadline to submit their contributions, but party candidates must do so by April 18 if they want funding before the primary.

"It's a challenging threshold to reach," and that's as it should be, to establish the legitimacy of would-be candidates, said Republican Chandler Woodcock.

"The threshold is so high that many of them won't make it," Republican Peter Mills said of the other candidates.

Independent Nancy Oden already has abandoned her bid for public financing.

"It's so obnoxious to ask people for $5 to give to the state that I'm ashamed to do it," Oden said last week. She said she has made the switch to private financing because trying to raise $12,500 in $5 increments, plus fill out the required paperwork, was eating up too much of her time.

Still, the prospect of having more than three publicly funded candidates in the general-election campaign is not hard to imagine.

If Green Independent Pat LaMarche, Mills and Woodcock qualify for public funds and Mills or Woodcock wins the GOP nomination, that sends two publicly funded candidates into the general-election campaign - LaMarche and the Republican nominee. Add two publicly funded independents to the mix and it would break the Clean Election Fund.

That's why Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, says the panel will decide in February whether to hope for the best or ask the Legislature for more money.

"The commission doesn't want to ask for money unnecessarily," Wayne said, but it also has a responsibility to be prudent, by assuring that the Clean Election Fund has a fat enough balance to get the job done.

Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 622-7511 or at: pcarrier@pressherald.com