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Maine Bill Targets Clean Election Candidates' PACs
03/04/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent candidates who take money under Maine's Clean Election system from running their own political action committees on the side. At a public hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, the measure's backers testified that such PACs amount to a loophole in the law that allows state lawmakers to build additional support for their campaigns and pursue their leadership ambitions. But opponents argued the bill would actually increase the amount of special interest money flowing into the clean elections process and reduce the number of candidates taking part. Jay Field reports.

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Maine Bill Targets Clean Election Candidates' PACs
Originally Aired: 3/4/2013 5:30 PM

Shortly before last fall's election, a PAC listing former Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham as its principal officer paid for advertising targeting her Democratic opponent. That's a "no no" under Maine's Clean Elections Act, and Democrats filed a complaint alleging that Farnham knowingly violated the rules.

The state Ethics Commission cleared Farnham - who went on to lose her race - noting that she was merely a fill-in leader at a PAC that had failed to update its registration paperwork. But the episode was an example of the sorts of conflicts that some Clean Elections advocates point to when they argue that candidates for state office have no business simultaneously running a political action committee.

"It's the duty of this committee, and of the Legislature, to close this loophole," state Sen. Linda Valentino told members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs committee. Sure, Valentino said, lawmakers who set up PACs and use them to fund raise don't technically spend this morney on their campaigns.

"But those moneies that you use underneath your PAC, you can use that to give parties. They rent a banquet hall. They have food. They have appreciation dinners for their volunteers," she said. "Don't say that's not really helping your campaign, when you're giving these types of little perks that you couldn't do under the Clean Elections system."

Valentino, a Saco Democrat, is co-sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal for candidates taking Clean Election funds to simultaneously run a PAC on the side. In 2012, a little over 60 percent of Maine candidates took public funds through the state's Clean Elections Act. That's down from around 85 percent in 2008.

Valentino and other supporters say forbidding PACs on the side will encourage more candidates to play by Clean Elections rules. But one member of the committee suggested there's very little that can be done at the state level to encourage more participation. State Sen. John Patrick is Democrart from Rumford.

"With the recent Supreme Court ruling that actually limits the amount that Clean Elections can have, in some respects it's almost detrimental to somebody who is trying to get elected now under the Clean Elections system," Patrick said.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Arizona's matching funds system - which was similar to Maine's - was unconstitutional. The U.S. District Court followed with an order striking down this provision in Maine's Clean Elections Act. And a year ago, Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill permanently removing matching funds from the law.

Opponents told the committee that these policy changes - along with other key differences between publicly and privately funded campaigns - would make Maine candidates less likely to follow Clean Elections rules if the PAC measure passes.

"It doesn't recognize the larger landscape of campaign finance laws around contribution limits," said Andrew Bossie, who runs Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Bossie says privately-funded candidates in Maine can only accept $350 in donations from any one source in an election.

"Under today's law, privately-funded candidates can raise unlimited amounts of money, from any one source, into a PAC," Bossie said - a playing field that would be even harder for Clean Elections candidates to compete on, if they were forbidden from setting up their own PACs.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Nichi Farnham's political action committee made a contribution to her Democratic opponent.


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