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Clean Election Supporters Attempting Ballot Initiative
07/19/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Supporters of Maine's Clean Elections system lost ground in this past legislative session, when $1.2 million dollars was cut from the program in the effort to balance the state budget. Several bills that would have boosted funding to clean elections failed, but now an advocacy group is hoping to take the issue directly to the voters, in the form of a citizen's initiative that would not only restore, but increase funding for legislative and gubernatorial candidates through a surcharge on court fines.

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Maine's first-in-the-nation, publicly financed system for electing governors and lawmakers has been beaten up pretty badly over the last few years. Court rulings eliminated matching funds under the Maine Clean Election Act, and the Maine Legislature has periodically raided its budget during tough times. This year Gov. Paul LePage eliminated $1.2 million dollars from the fund that could have been used by his challengers next year. Through it all, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections executive director Andrew Bossie has tried to remain optimistic about state government's commitment to the program. But now he and other clean elections supporters are taking it to the streets, submitting a petition request with the Secretary of State's office.

"After we submit today, in early September we'll be granted petitions where we will go out and fan across the state to collect more than 58,000 signatures of Maine voters that want to see our campaign finance laws strong," Bossie said.

Bossie and other members of Maine Citizens hope that voters will support efforts to regain some of the lost ground the clean elections system has ceded in recent years. Bossie said, if approved at the ballot box, the citizen initiative would level the playing field for clean elections candidates.

"What this bill would do today is candidates that demonstrate in-district support from their voters that go out and collect $5 checks would be given the opportunity to access additional funding to stay competitive in their campaigns," Bossie said. "Right now we have a clean elections law that really makes some clean elections candidates sitting ducks."

Republican state Sen. Ed Youngblood, who was also a former member of the state ethics commission that rules on clean election law disputes, attempted to pump more money into the system. His bill was enacted by lawmakers but carried over to the next session because there wasn't enough money to fund it. Youngblood supports the citizen initiative which would nearly triple public funding for gubernatorial candidates from $1.2 million dollars to $3.2 million dollars. House candidates would see their maximum distributions jump from $5,000 to $16,500 and Senate campaign limits would expand from $21,455 to $65,000. Taxpayer funding for the system would end under the new plan and be replaced with a 15% surcharge on all civil and criminal fines and penalties ordered by Maine courts. Youngblood and others said the new system would eliminate the criticism of the clean election system as "welfare for politicians," and would set up a reliable revenue stream for the program.

"I believe that this effort will substantially improve the clean election effort and begin to take some of the big money out of the political process," Youngblood said.

Supporter said the citizen initiative ALSO addresses other long-time criticisms by prohibiting registered candidates from participating in political action committees and BY barring ballot question committees from spending money on candidate campaigns. Activist Anne Luther, said the proposed initiative would curtail the overly generous spending limits for privately financed gubernatorial candidates authorized by LePage two years ago when Republicans controlled the Legislature.

"This legislation does roll back the increase in contribution limits to gubernatorial candidates back to $750 per election that was upped to $1,500 per election in the 125th Legislature and this puts that back to $750 per election," Luther said.

Democrats said the clean election initiative reflects the intentions of Mainers who overwhelmingly approved the system in a 1996 statewide referendum. But Republican state Sen. Andre Cushing, a Hampden Republican, predicts that voters will reject the additional court costs and the new higher cash distributions for politicians.

"I've got no problem with taking issues of this nature to the voters because I think the voters are smart enough to understand whether they're being manipulated or not," Cushing said.

The Maine Secretary of State has 15 days to review the application and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections hopes to start circulating petitions in September to place the question before the voters next year, or possibly 2015.


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