Municipalities Subject to Campaign Finance Regulations

AUGUSTA — Municipalities spending more than $5,000 to influence the outcome of an election, take note: Your spending is subject to Maine’s campaign finance regulations.


That’s the interpretation of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which last week ruled a municipal corporation is subject to campaign finance rules.

The 3-1 decision followed a request by David Crocker, former head of the political action committee TABOR NOW, to investigate the city of South Portland’s actions in advance of the Nov. 3 statewide referendum. South Portland city officials sent a one-page flier describing the council’s opposition to Question 2, which sought to reduce automotive excise taxes, and Question 4, which sought to lower taxes.

While commissioners ruled the city of South Portland did not spend more than $5,000 to produce the mailing and was thus did not meet the threshold for filing campaign spending reports as a ballot question committee, commissioners agreed the city stepped over the line between education and advocacy.

Sally Daggett, counsel for the city of South Portland, argued the fliers were an effort to educate voters of positions taken by city leaders.

It’s a stance that gained little ground with Crocker.

“I don’t believe this was some act of neutral education,” Crocker said. Crocker urged South Portland — and all municipalities — should be required to file as ballot question committees when expending more than $5,000 to influence the outcome of a referendum question or ballot.

Commissioners echoed Crocker, saying the use of the word “oppose,” in bold face, was to advocate in opposition of Question 2 and Question 4.

Michael Starn, communications consultant for the Maine Municipal Association (MMA), said the association is unlikely to change its advice to municipalities based on the commission’s ruling.

The association provides a list of legal partisan activity, which indicates a municipality can use funds to educate but not advocate, to members of the MMA.

The leaflet advises municipalities “Cannot do: Partisan advocacy, except on your own dime and on your own time.”

MMA’s message to member towns won’t change in light of the commission’s ruling, Starn said.

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