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Maine Senate Rejects Clean Election Fund Fixes
03/08/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Members of the Maine Senate staged a lengthy debate today before an initial partisan vote over proposed changes to Maine's Clean Election law. The vote came in the aftermath of last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the matching funds provision in states that offer public funding for legislative candidates. Majority Republicans rejected two plans that would have replaced the matching funds portion of the law with other options that would allow Maine Clean Election candidates to receive supplemental funds.

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Some members of the Maine Senate thought they had found a way to provide additional funding to some candidates without running afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But in the end they opted to simply strike the so-called matching funds provision of the Maine Clean Election Act and leave publicly-funded House candidates with a one-time distribution of $5,000, and $21,400 for Senate candidates.

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, says the decision leaves the door wide open for huge amounts of special interest money to pour in against publicly-financed candidates in targeted races.

"We're terribly disappointed," Bossie says. "We think the vote that took place in the Senate today shows a lack of leadership. Maine people voted in 1996 to have a strong Clean Elections law because it kept special interests and wealthy interests out of our government, and today we're seeing this Legislature--the first Legislature in the history of Clean Elections--vote to substantially weaken our Clean Election laws."

The 18-15 party-line vote did not come easy. Democrats and Republicans squared off for more two-and-a-half hours over different proposals to replace the matching funds that used to be handed out when opponents of publicly-funded candidates exceeded certain spending caps. The U.S. Supreme Court declared matching funds illegal last year, maintaining that the additional funds had a chilling effect on a candidate's, or third party's, free speech rights.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat, told Senate Republicans that the failure to provide some way for a Clean Election candidate in a targeted race to receive additional money was complelely contradictory to the law's goal of reducing the influence of special interests in elections.

"Are we excited to bring more money into politics?" Alfond asked. "The idea of bringing more money into politics--does that excite us? Is that going to help the system? Is that, all of sudden, going to give us selling points in talking with voters when we go back to knock on their doors? You know, when I went to Augusta this session what I did was to double the amount of money that can come to me through private contributions. I just don't see the excitement in that. I don't see the logic in that."

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, whose legislative campaign was privately funded, acknowledges that Maine voters supported the Clean Election Act when it was approved in 1996. But she said she thinks that voters are now weighing spending taxpayer dollars for vital social service programs against providing funds for politicians.

"I understand what the people wanted," Plowman said. "But I've got a lot more people who are angry about not being able to keep themselves and their children warm or fed than they are angry about worrying whether you have enough money to run for office. God bless you all."

State Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton is a Republican. But he's also been a Democrat -- and an independent. Regardless of his affiliation, he's always relied on publicly-financed campaigns. Saviello says candidates who worry too much about money and opponents with special interest cash are taking their eye off the ball.

"When I made the decision to run Clean Election, I knew additional money could be put in the campaign against me," Saviello said. "I accepted that fact the day I signed that piece of paper, knowing, in fact, if I lost, I lost because of money and not because of my actions, my knocking on doors and the things I did."

State Sen. John Patrick, a Rumford Democrat, said that Republicans who voted against his efforts to provide one of two different options on the table to provide more money for publicy-funded candidates being outspent by their opponents were sending a different message to voters.

"I will say once again that a vote to indefinitely postpone this amendment is a vote to kill Maine Clean Elections," Patrick said.

But Republicans did just that in an initial 18-15 party-line vote. The bill that simply eliminates matching funds from the state's campaign finance law now moves to the House.



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