AUGUSTA — Candidates for Maine governor and legislative seats who are running “clean election” campaigns could lose access to millions of dollars this summer and fall unless lawmakers come back into special session to correct a bill-drafting error.
Lawmakers left dozens of measures in limbo last month when they adjourned the 2018 legislative session amid a fight over Medicaid expansion, tax cuts and other partisan issues. While school funding and Medicaid expansion have received considerable attention, advocates for Maine’s public campaign finance system and a Maine Ethics Commission official warn that a little-noticed victim of the partisan rancor could have significant financial ramifications for the November 2018 elections.
Lawmakers failed to pass a routine “errors and inconsistencies” bill to correct unintended budget language that prevents the Maine Ethics Commission from disbursing additional money to so-called “clean election” candidates starting on July 1. As a result, more than 200 legislative candidates and potentially three gubernatorial campaigns will be unable to tap into at least $3 million – money that lawmakers already have budgeted for the public campaign finance system – in the final months of the election season.
“This is a very serious problem in need of a legislative fix,” Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said Monday.
As word begins to spread about the uncertainty over future Clean Election funding, some candidates are rushing to qualify for as much additional funding as possible before the July 1 cutoff.
Dr. Linda Sanborn, a former Democratic House member now running for Senate District 30 in the Scarborough-Gorham area, anticipates that incumbent Republican Sen. Amy Volk has the capacity to raise a significant amount of money for her privately financed campaign.
“I want to be able to run the best campaign I can, but it is going to be difficult … over the next couple of weeks to collect as many qualifying contributions as I need” to receive additional money, Sanborn said. “It is going to take a lot of time to make this effort when I want to be knocking on doors.”
Under the Maine Clean Election Act approved by voters more than 20 years ago, candidates for Legislature and governor can receive money to run their campaigns in exchange for forgoing most private contributions. Public campaign financing is a billed as a way to reduce the influence of big-money special interests while allowing candidates more time to discuss issues with voters rather than ask for donations.
In the 2018 elections, House candidates running in contested races can receive a total of $7,600 for their primary and general election campaigns, while Maine Senate candidates can receive $30,400. Gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, can receive between $800,000 and $1 million each.
But because there is no limit on how much money a privately financed candidate can raise or spend, the Clean Election Act allows publicly financed candidates to qualify for “supplemental payments” through the November election. Candidates for governor, for instance, can receive an additional $1.4 million in public campaign financing by demonstrating their community support with the type of small-dollar “qualifying contributions” that Sanborn is now soliciting from supporters.
It’s those “supplemental payments” that are now in doubt.
In the budget bill passed last year after a three-day government shutdown, lawmakers bumped up the timing of a $3 million transfer to Clean Elections to ensure the program had sufficient money to operate during the 2018 elections. But language in that bill inadvertently prohibits the Maine Ethics Commission from actually handing out the money to campaigns after July 1.
“It turns out that small typos can have a big impact,” said Anna Kellar, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the advocacy group that promotes Maine’s public campaign financing system. “That money was appropriated, it is sitting in the fund but they can’t dispense it.”
The Clean Elections issue comes three years after a one-word clerical error – a missing “and” – in a bill passed in the final hours of a legislative session almost cost the Efficiency Maine energy conservation program nearly $38 million. The Legislature eventually fixed the error, but not until after Republican Gov. Paul LePage tried to use the issue as leverage to get other political concessions.
Making a quick-fix to the Clean Elections problem got caught up in the political gamesmanship during the final days of the session last month during a high-profile election year.
The “errors and inconsistencies” bill breezed through both the House and Senate during an initial vote. But on the final tumultuous day of the legislative session, House Republicans blocked final passage of the bill while also preventing the Legislature from extending the 2018 session for several days.
The measure is now included among the dozens of others that could be taken up during a special session. Yet Republican and Democratic leaders, along with LePage, continue to point fingers over who is to blame for the Legislature’s failure to complete its work. No one has moved to convene a special session.
Three gubernatorial candidates – Republican Sen. Garrett Mason, Democrat Betsy Sweet and independent Terry Hayes – are running as Clean Election candidates. Also, 220 House and Senate candidates have qualified for public campaign financing, although that number is expected to grow.
Wayne said while some legislative campaigns will be impacted, especially Senate candidates in particularly competitive districts, the gubernatorial campaigns stand to take the biggest hit if the Legislature fails to act. Those candidates for governor will still each receive a $600,000 payment in June for the general election, but will be ineligible for the supplemental payments after July 1.
Wayne said it would be “unfair” to expect governor’s candidates to run their entire fall campaigns on $600,000 when they entered the program anticipating access to up to $1.4 million more.
“There was absolutely no intention by the Appropriations Committee to freeze funding in this program in the middle of the election year,” Wayne said.
Hayes, who serves as state treasurer, said the issue is not consuming her thoughts or actions because it’s an issue beyond her control. But Hayes acknowledged it would be “very difficult” for her to compete on just $800,000 – including $200,000 already allocated – against private candidates with no spending or fundraising limits. And because the law restricts her ability to seek private donations, losing access to that funding would force her to dramatically change her plans for the fall campaign.
“But I’m not dropping out” either way, Hayes said. “I’m in this until the end.”
Kellar, the director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, believes partisan politics were behind the failure of the “errors and inconsistencies” bill. House Republicans only voted against the bill after their leadership came out against it, she said. That leadership includes Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, a frequent critic of the Clean Election program who is running for governor as a privately financed candidate.
“Now because a small minority is refusing to fix the typo, that money won’t be there,” Kellar said. “I would say that is a threat to the integrity of the election system.”
It is unclear what options, if any, are available if the Legislature does not fix the issue during a special session. While some have speculated LePage could free up the money by issuing a financial order, others questioned the legality of such a move even if the governor was willing to shore up a public campaign financing system that he and other critics often decry as “welfare for politicians.”