The Maine Clean Elections Act that comes up for a vote Nov. 3 is presented by supporters as a defense against big money, outside money and “dark” money influencing the outcome of legislative and gubernatorial elections.
But it comes with a hefty price tag for Maine taxpayers.
The Act, Question 1 on the November ballot, provides a wide range of public financing for candidates. Someone running unopposed in a primary for the Maine House of Representatives would be eligible for $500. One unopposed in the State Senate primary could qualify for $2,000. On the gubernatorial level, we’re starting to talk real money, even at the primary level: up to $200,000 for an unopposed candidate for governor. That same candidate, if opposed in the party’s June Primary Election, might be eligible for $400,000 initially, and ultimately, $1 million.
If only it stopped there.
When the primaries are behind us and the field has been narrowed, the general election comes around. That uncontested candidate for State Senate eventually could qualify for $60,000. And he or she who would be governor could be in line for $2 million if opposed by one or more other candidates.
The math is daunting. Should both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in 2017 elect public financing, taxpayer support for those campaigns could reach $4 million. Add in five contested Senate races and 50 House contests and the bottom line is $5.65 million.
The act has other provisions. One would identify outside groups that fund political ads. Another provides transparency when incoming governors raise unlimited contributions from lobbyists and special interest groups to pay for inaugural parties and transition expenses.
There’s no question that big-money donors aim to buy influence that furthers their ends but not those of the average citizen. But we are not convinced that The Clean Election Act will stop the flow. PACs and a clever tax dodge known as the 501(c)4 help special interests shepherd their shekels to eager candidates.
And all the while, the Maine taxpayers’ contribution to legislative and gubernatorial candidates will grow. The question voters must settle for themselves is one of priorities. Is public funding of political campaigns more important than state support for education, road maintenance, hospitals and elder care? There’s only so much money in the pot.