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Clean Elections Law Battle In Maine Legislature
11/29/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A partisan dispute has erupted in Augusta over the state's co-called clean elections law, which is being revised in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year. Democrats on the legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee are accusing the Republican majority of trying to kill public campaign financing in Maine.

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Clean Elections Law Battle
Originally Aired: 11/29/2011 12:00 AM

Lawmakers on the both sides of isle agree that Maine's law had to be revisited, after the high court struck down the so-called "matching funds" provision of a similar law, which had allowed publicly funded candidates to access more money when being outspent by their opponents. As the legislature's Legal and Veteran's Affairs Committee set out to adjust the law, majority Republicans opted to strike all references to matching funds without offering any alternatives. Anne Luther of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections hopes the full legislature doesn't go along.

"Well I think we're certainly disappointed with the majority report out of this committee and if this is the legislative outcome, I think it's definitely going to be a step backward," Luther said."

Maine voters approved the Clean Elections Act in 1996 to discourage the use of special interest money out of state and, allow candidates to spend more time running for office instead of fundraising. Advocates also argued that the law would encourage new candidates to run for public office. But earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that permitting matching funds violates the First Amendment, and forces privately funded candidates and independent political organizations to either restrain their spending or risk triggering matching funds to their publicly financed opponents.

"You're never going to take all of the money out of politics, that's just not going to happen," said Representative Jarrod Crockett, a Bethel Republican.

Crockett and six other Republicans endorsed a majority plan against the wishes of five Democrats and an Independent lawmaker who were looking for something more than just compliance with the court's ruling. Democrats on the panel encouraged Republicans to consider an option that would allow the release of additional funds to candidates who were willing to collect more qualifying contributions. Crockett said that seems to circumvent the court ruling. And then, he said, there's the cost.

"With the striking of the matching funds, you're looking at saving over a million dollars this year," Crockett said. "That's a pretty substantial chunk. And when you take the gubernatorial piece out, as far as matching funds, you're going to be looking at some real savings and that's what it came down to for me. It's a numbers game. It's hard to go to people of Maine and say, hey I'm going to increase the spending for clean elections and at the same time, we've heard about DHHS and what they're going through. It came down to a numbers game."

But Democratic state Representative Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, said that wasn't the only game being played out in the committee. Russell urgged crockett and other republicans on the committee to come up with an alternative, rather than go along with party leaders on the issue.

"If you want to defer to leadership, that's your prerrogative," Russell said. "But we're all individually duly elected members of the Legislature and our job is to sit in this seat and to get the policy in the best position possible and to set aside partisan debates and to actually do what is right for the people of Maine. So if you want to abrogate your responsibility, that's your prerogative."

State Representative Mike Carey, a Lewiston Democrat, said Republicans on the committee voted as a block but expressed different concerns individually that could lead to a compromise on the floor of the House or Senate since the majority of all lawmakers rely on the Clean Elections system to run their campaigns.

"The Legislature is an amazing place," Carey said. "The people of Maine send their neighbors to come and work something out and be reasonable and I think when calmer heads prevail, that's where we'll find ourselves."

Some Democrats speculated Republicans may be holding the majority vote on Clean Elections as a future bargaining chip in exchange for supporting upcoming supplemental budget requests or other controversial proposals.


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