AUGUSTA - The 11-year-old state law that provides public funding for legislative and gubernatorial candidates has encouraged more people to seek office and boosted the number of challengers who take on incumbents, according to a new study of the Maine Clean Election Act.
The analysis, prepared by the state agency that administers the program, says public funding has reined in direct spending by legislative candidates, but not indirect campaign spending by special interests.
The report by the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices says overall spending in legislative races is up because political action committees and political parties are spending more to help or hurt candidates.
The law has created "a more even playing field in legislative races" between incumbents and challengers and between winners and losers, the report says. Although the study lauds the Clean Election Act for opening up the political process and making it more competitive, the report concedes that some of the law's goals "have not come to pass," such as cutting the overall cost of campaigns. Public financing "cannot be a panacea for all ills of the electoral system," the report says.
"I think the most significant findings are that the act is encouraging first-time candidates to run for office" and allowing challengers to run competitive races, said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the state ethics commission.
From 1990 through 2000, the number of general-election legislative candidates averaged 349, the report says. That number jumped to 391 candidates in 2004 and to 386 in 2006, as public financing became more popular.
Adopted by Maine voters in a 1996 referendum, the Clean Election Act first made public financing available in legislative races in 2000 and in gubernatorial campaigns in 2002. In last year's general election, 81 percent of the candidates for the Legislature used the Clean Election Fund to pay for their races. So did three of the five gubernatorial candidates who were on the ballot in November.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci relied on private financing in his successful re-election bid.
As the number of candidates using public financing has grown, so has the program's cost. It jumped from $3.3 million for legislative and gubernatorial candidates in 2002 to $6.8 million last year.
"We have a very viable and popular and effective system here in Maine" and the report confirms that, said Alison Smith of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, an advocacy group that supports public financing. "We remain a model for the nation because (the law) has worked so well here."
Smith urged caution in blaming public financing for the rise in outside spending by political action committees and parties, because it remains unclear how much such spending is growing in states that lack public financing. Maine is one of only seven states that have full public financing of elections, according to Public Campaign, a national group that advocates such funding.
House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy, R-Newport, a vocal critic of public financing who says the state should get rid of the Clean Election Act or at least tighten eligibility, said the report shows that the Clean Election Act has proven to be "extraordinarily expensive."
That high price is not what voters anticipated when they passed the law at the ballot box, Tardy said.
It's good that more people are running for office, Tardy said, but the Clean Election Act has encouraged fringe candidates to run for the Legislature by giving them tax dollars to pay for their races.
"It props up candidates who would gather very little support" if they had to raise money privately because they are not credible, Tardy said.
Other critics have noted recently that several minor candidates for governor tried to get public financing last year. None of them did, but reformers, including the ethics commission itself, say the rules need to be tightened to ensure that such candidates don't qualify in the future.
The Legislature is considering bills this year to make it harder for gubernatorial candidates to get public financing, an idea opposed by some 2006 candidates who say it's already hard enough. Also under review are caps for contributions to political action committees.
Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 622-7511 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org