AUGUSTA - Maine taxpayers gave gubernatorial candidates more than $3 million for campaigns last year. Just imagine what the cost might have been if more than four candidates had qualified for money from the state's Clean Election Fund.
With that in mind, several legislators, the state agency that oversees public financing and an advocacy group are trying to make it harder for future Blaine House hopefuls to dip into the state treasury.
They say the number of publicly financed candidates could grow so large in future elections that the Clean Election Fund would be strapped for cash and the public could lose confidence in the system.
"I think we need to set a higher standard," said House Speaker Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, the sponsor of one of the bills. "The number of candidates and the expense is something that puts a strain on the system."
The state needs safeguards to exclude "frivolous candidates" and preserve public confidence, said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
Opponents argue that the system works, contending that weak candidates who lacked public support or organizational muscle were weeded out last year. They say tougher rules would disenfranchise independent candidates, who lack a party apparatus to help them qualify, and give political parties a stranglehold on the electoral system.
Under the Clean Election Act, which voters passed in 1996, public financing is available for qualified legislative and gubernatorial candidates. Although more than 300 legislative candidates received public financing last year, the push to tighten eligibility is focused primarily on the governor's race because the costs are so high.
Three of the five gubernatorial candidates who were on the ballot last November -- Green Independent Pat LaMarche, independent Barbara Merrill and Republican Chandler Woodcock -- used the Clean Election Fund to finance their campaigns. Republican Peter Mills used the fund in his bid to win the GOP nomination in June, which he lost to Woodcock.
Each of the three publicly funded gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in November received between $915,000 and $1.3 million. Mills got $200,000 in the primary. By contrast, the average amount distributed to legislative candidates was $25,644 in Senate races and $6,415 in House races.
The law allows, but does not require, gubernatorial candidates who want public financing to start by raising "seed money" from private contributors, which can be spent to build name recognition before the next step in the process.
That second step requires each gubernatorial candidate to collect at least 2,500 "qualifying contributions" of $5 each from Maine voters -- $12,500 per candidate. That money goes into the Clean Election Fund to supplement the tax dollars that provide most of the money for the state's public-financing program.
Most of the reforms that have been proposed in the Legislature would tighten up one or both steps. For example, Cummings' bill would force each gubernatorial candidate who wants taxpayer funding to first raise at least $15,000 in seed money. The candidate would then have to collect 3,250 qualifying contributions, producing added revenue for the Clean Election Fund.
Several other bills are variations on that theme. One exception is a bill filed by Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, which calls for a study of how to change state law so only one independent gubernatorial candidate could qualify for public financing in each election.
Merrill was the only independent candidate who made the cut last year, but six other independents had hoped to get public financing.
Backers of tighter controls say all of the gubernatorial candidates who received public financing last year were legitimate. But, they add, at least some of the six candidates who failed to qualify had limited support and voters might have become disenchanted if such candidates had received public financing.
"It wouldn't take but one big overuse of the system to generate a different (public) attitude," said Mills, the former candidate and a state senator.
Alison Smith of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections echoed that sentiment, predicting that more candidates eventually will qualify for tax dollars unless the Legislature takes steps now to raise the bar.
"We want to make sure the qualifying process is a real measure of public support for the candidate," she said.
Supporters of the status quo say the existing rule is plenty tough because the candidate must explain the Clean Election Act to 2,500 voters before asking each for a $5 check or money order -- the state will not accept cash contributions.
"It's really difficult to overstate how tough it is" to meet that threshold, said Chris Jackson, who managed Woodcock's campaign.
"It was touch-and-go," Merrill said of her race. "When you make it more difficult for independent candidates to qualify, you also make it difficult for lesser-known candidates to qualify."
Still, Cummings predicted that the Legislature will tighten the rules, in part because tax-conscious voters are watching for government waste these days.
"There's a lot of concern out there that money is well spent," he said.
Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 622-7511 or at: email@example.com