In 1996, Maine voters overwhelmingly supported the idea of offering publicly-financed campaign options for candidates running for governor or the Maine Legislature. But since then things have changed - both in terms of campaign spending and the amount of money available to fund the program.
Gov. Paul LePage wants to eliminate the Maine Clean Elections program. Adrienne Bennett is his spokesperson. "He simply believes that giving welfare to politicians comes further down the list than protecting our most vulnerable," she says. "We have difficult choices to make, we have a fiscal crisis in front of us and we need to choose."
But supporters say Clean Elections helps put a lid on the influence of big money in legislative races. Anne Luther, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters, told members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that the state's Clean Election Act had the support of 56 percent of Maine voters when it was approved at the ballot box. She says eliminating funding for the program would be nothing less than a breach of the public trust.
"Today in our country, we have more concentrated wealth and income than at any time since the beginning of the last century," Luther said. "There is nothing more antithetical to the rights of citizens in a democracy than concentrated wealth and power. Research at the federal level shows that legislators and policy makers are vastly more attentive to the interests of the affluent than they are to those of everyone else. Researchers call this representational inequality. That's the notion that, although we each get one vote, we are not all represented with the same vigor."
Among the dozens of Maine residents attending the hearing was Joseph Kubetz, of Portland. Kubetz says he couldn't help but notice the irony of holding a hearing on a plan to defund a program designed to limit the impact of corporate contributions to elections on a day when the Bangor Savings Bank chose to celebrate its new Augusta office building by buying the lunches of everyone who ate at the State House complex cafeteria.
"I noticed on the way in that lunch today is being provided by Bangor Savings Bank, which is terrific, that's great. I'm going to go have some lunch after this hearing - right? That's a good thing," Kubetz said. "But - See where I'm going with this? - we don't want that kind of interest to be running our state."
Same Jones, of Phippburg, says there's a direct link between the ways that political campaigns are financed and the strength of a democracy. Without a Clean Elections option, Jones says Maine's State House elections will be decided by those with the most to invest.
"The amount of money at issue today at this hearing - $4 million - is significant but not huge when compared with the amount of special interest funds available," Jones said. "If left intact as Clean Election funds, the money will help the people of Maine elect candidates who represent all of the people in Maine. Without it, Mainers and the environment will suffer and good candidates will refrain from running for office."
But House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says public financing in Maine elections was more or less neutralized three years ago. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case to lift a federal ban on independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions prior to an election.
A year later, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for states like Maine to provide publicly-financed matching funds to candidates whose opponents were privately funded, or who were the beneficiaries of third-party spending. Fredette says since then, Maine's legislative spending has reached record levels.
"Let's be clear on one thing - the Democrats opened the flood gates in this past election, spending upwards of $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 on some House races," Fredette said. "And so Clean Elections has been virtually disbanded by the United decision."
Participation in the Maine Clean Elections program included about 80 percent of all legislative candidates in 2008. That figure declined to just over 60 percent in 2012.