December 20, 2012

Outsiders spent more than Maine's legislative candidates

BY STEVE MISTLER State House Bureau

Maine's 2012 legislative elections have broken another record.

Campaign finance reports show that outside groups spent more money attempting to influence this year's House and Senate races than the candidates did.

Political action committees and political parties spent a record $3.6 million to support or defeat legislative candidates, while the candidates' own committees spent a total of $3.4 million, new data shows.

It is the first time in Maine history that outside groups have spent more than the candidates' committees, according to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a nonprofit group that advocates against the influence and prevalence of money in Maine elections.

The $3.6 million spent by outside groups shattered the previous record of $1.5 million, spent on Maine's 2010 elections.

The latest numbers are expected to intensify calls for campaign finance reform by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the group that helped establish the Maine Clean Election Act.

The Clean Election Act, passed by voters in 1996, established a system that allows gubernatorial and legislative candidates to qualify for public campaign funding.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Thursday that the spending reports reinforced Democrats' belief that changes are needed to "level the playing field."

"Clearly, there's a problem when you have outside groups spending more than the candidates," said Eves.

He said he had not yet been approached by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections with specific reforms but anticipates a proposal.

Several changes to the Clean Election Act over the past two years may have contributed to the increased spending by outside groups.

In the past, Clean Election candidates received public funding on top of their initial allotments if any outside group or candidate spent more against them.

The so-called matching funds provision was considered by some to be a deterrent to spending by outside groups. Last year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the matching funds provision in Arizona's law, ruling that it curbed the free speech of groups that wanted to spend on elections.

The ruling prompted the Maine Legislature, led by Republicans at the time, to remove matching funds from the state's Clean Election law.

Democrats tried to set up an alternative system that would allow Clean Election candidates to qualify for additional public funding. Republicans rejected those efforts, arguing that they wouldn't comply with the spirit of the court ruling.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has vowed to challenge that decision, and the post-election reports from the Maine ethics commission this week will likely spur that effort.

"We now know for certain what many Maine voters suspected -- that more often than not, outside interests are buying the messages Mainers are hearing and seeing and exerting more influence over campaigns than the candidates themselves," said Andrew Bossie, the citizens group's executive director, in a press statement. "This huge increase in outside money is a very troubling trend."

Bossie said spending by outside groups -- known as independent expenditures -- makes it hard for the public to determine who is trying to influence elections.

And outside groups don't have the same contribution limits that candidate committees do, he said.

"Maine people want to hear directly from their candidates, not outside interest groups with agendas of their own," said Bossie.

Any proposals for reform that require public funding will likely encounter resistance from Republicans.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said Thursday that his caucus would likely oppose any changes that tap "scarce government resources."

Republicans have partially attributed their losses in this year's legislative elections to getting outspent by Democratic groups. But Fredette doesn't expect the party could justify spending public money to even the playing field while an $880 million shortfall is projected in the next-two year budget and the Department of Health and Human Services has a $100 million budget gap in its current budget.

Also, Fredette said, the court ruling significantly limited what the Legislature could do to change Maine's law.

"I expect our position will be consistent with last session," he said.

Eves said Democratic lawmakers would take a fresh look at any proposal, including the one promoted by Democrats in the last session.

Real change may come from Maine citizens instead of the Legislature.

Bossie's group is collaborating with other organizations to push a constitutional amendment that would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions that effectively removed state and federal restrictions on political spending by outside groups.

Several states have expressed legislative support for an amendment, but the odds are long.

Advocates for campaign finance reform say a more achievable goal may be to require more transparency to inform the public about who is spending to influence elections.

Steve Mistler -- 791-6345

smistler@mainetoday.com

twitter/stevemistler

 

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