AUGUSTA — The Maine Clean Election Fund faces exhaustion if three candidates for governor use it in the 2010 race, a problem some blame on $4.4 million in “loans” to the Legislature that have not been repaid.
The fund, which was used by 81 percent of legislative candidates last year, supports Maine’s 13-year-old public campaign financing system.
The Legislature voted to return the borrowed money in 2008, but that decision is being revisited in Governor John Baldacci’s budget for the next two years. Instead of the full $4.4 million, Baldacci proposes paying back $2 million as part of an overall reduction in state spending that follows shrinking revenues.
That would create a more than $900,000 deficit if five primary and three general election candidates for governor use public financing, said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. Both gubernatorial and legislative races would be affected, but the more likely scenario predicted by Wayne is that at least one gubernatorial candidate will choose private financing. In 2006, Baldacci used private financing to defeat three publicly funded opponents. In 2002, there was only one publicly funded candidate for governor.
Alison Smith, co-chairman for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, was among the people who launched the citizen-led initiative in 1996. More than 320,000 Mainers — 56.2 percent of voters in that election — voted to create the system.
“We never wanted the state to have to go looking for a big pot of money all at one time,” said Smith. “The only reason we’re talking about there not being enough money for 2010 is the borrowing that has happened.”
The fund is supported by a $2 million appropriation from the General Fund every January, plus qualifying and seed money contributions collected by candidates, and fines. About $190,000 a year is collected through a question on Mainers’ income tax forms that asks them to approve $3 for the fund. Though it doesn’t affect their tax payment, only about 7 percent of filers do it.
About $8 million has been taken from the fund since 2003 and put into either the General Fund or the Rainy Day Fund. Of that, $3.6 million was returned in 2006. The Maine Clean Election Fund currently has a balance of about $3.6 million.
One tool the Ethics Commission and Legislature uses to control spending in the system is to make it difficult to qualify for public financing.
In 2007, the Legislature increased the number of $5 qualifying contributions gubernatorial candidates must collect from 2,500 to 3,250. In addition, the Ethics Commission has recommended that candidates be required to collect between $30,000 and $50,000 in seed money contributions of $100 or less.
“If that additional requirement is enacted, we expect that fewer than three general election candidates would be publicly funded, and that the Governor’s proposal would be sufficient to fund both legislative and gubernatorial candidates in the 2010 election,” said Wayne to the Appropriations Committee during recent budget hearings.
In addition to those changes, there are at least a dozen bills proposed by legislators involving the Maine Clean Election Act. Most them are scheduled for public hearings with the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday, March 30 and Wednesday, April 1.
Sen. Gerald Davis (R-Cumberland County) proposed repealing the act altogether several years ago, but this session his bill, LD 921, stops at barring gubernatorial candidates from public financing.
“It’s going to cost millions and millions in taxpayer money,” he said. “Because of the expense of it, I think it would be voted down by the voters today if they had a referendum on it.”
Rep. Pamela Jabar Trinward (D-Waterville), the House chairman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, said she expects her committee to use the best ideas from all the bills in a committee-generated proposal that will be forwarded to the Legislature later this session. Within that proposal will most certainly be some provision to stiffen qualification requirements, she said.
“I think it’s an appropriate move at this point to raise the bar,” she said. “It’s the state’s money and we have to be good stewards.”
Asked whether the money taken from the fund by the Legislature has hurt the system, Trinward said she doesn’t believe it has.
“In light of the economy we are in today, we’ve done very well to have the amount of money we have,” she said. “We should feel good about that.”