It should have been a somber moment, but the awful shouting intruded on the funeral service. The small crowd of mourners shuffled uneasily around the grave, trying in vain to hear the preacher’s words over the din. The noise was so loud, it even drowned out the bagpiper.

“I’m not dead,” the voice from the coffin screamed. “Don’t bury me.”

The preacher attempted to comfort the corpse. “I know it’s hard to accept,” he said, “but you really are deceased. You just passed away so quietly that nobody, not even you, noticed.

“But if you want to keep protesting, that’s fine. Anything that drowns out bagpipes is an improvement.”

The casket was lowered into the grave and covered with dirt. The crowd, ignoring the muffled cries from underground, began to disperse, although a few lingered to read the inscription on the tombstone:

“Here Lies The Maine Clean Election Act (1996-2012), Done In By Unconstitutionality and Irrelevance.”

Even though there haven’t been any obituaries, the law that provides public funding for legislative and gubernatorial campaigns has expired. Don’t be fooled by the pale ghost of a statute that will continue to hand out checks redeemable for taxpayers’ dollars for the foreseeable future. That specter has nothing to do with keeping elections clean. That’s just welfare for entrenched politicians too lazy to raise their own money to pay for lawn signs.

Here’s how this sad state of affairs came to be. Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Arizona case that public campaign financing laws that provide matching funds to candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents are in violation of the First Amendment. That’s because they discourage donors from giving additional money for fear it will trigger more taxpayer dollars for the opposition. As a result, Maine has to make some changes in a hurry to bring the Clean Election Act into compliance before the 2012 campaign season gets rolling.

Proponents of public funding, mostly Democrats, came up with a complicated scheme to get around the high court’s decision, but Republicans, who have a majority in the Legislature, were unenthusiastic. In fact, many members of the GOP wanted to do away with Clean Election money, at least for gubernatorial candidates. It appeared a Republican-backed bill to do just that was on its way to approval when the Legal Affairs Committee held a meeting on Jan. 4.

But the measure’s sponsor surprised even members of his own party by recommending the committee kill his proposal and advance to the full Legislature a bill that did nothing more than strip the unconstitutional matching-funds provision from the Clean Election law.

Public funding advocates tried to spin the committee’s unanimous decision as a win for their side. “I was happy to see that they voted not to further hollow out the program,” Democratic state Rep. Michael Carey told the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Of course, it’s impossible to hollow out something that’s already empty.

If the GOP had pushed through the measure to end Clean Election funding for candidates for governor, they’d have handed Democrats a juicy campaign issue. Using public money to pay for campaigns remains popular (even though the $7.4 million that’s been pumped into gubernatorial races since the law took effect has produced not a single winner).

How much easier to do nothing, since that effectively renders the public-funding option dead.

Once the revision is approved, a candidate for the Blaine House could qualify for a flat $600,000 in Clean Election cash. That’s nowhere near enough for an effective statewide campaign, so nobody who’s serious about winning would take that deal. Instead, they’d go the privately funded route because it has the potential to produce enough loot to lead to victory.

The only campaigns foolish enough to take public money would be those of fringe candidates, who’ll figure it gives them a bigger budget than they’d otherwise be able to extract from the pocketbooks of their far-from-numerous followers.

Not only will this change result in the end of meaningful public funding of gubernatorial races, it’ll also signal a major change in how legislative candidates use Clean Election funds. About four out of five state House and Senate hopefuls took taxpayer money for their campaigns in 2010. Expect that to drop significantly this year, as candidates facing serious challenges examine both how much cash they can raise privately and how much more could be injected into their contests by political action committees. Even with the new limits, it might be worth settling for a $5,000 check for a House race or a $21,000 one for a potential senator if the recipient is confident PACs are prepared to pump many times that amount into their campaigns as independent expenditures.

Of course, that money will be anything but “Clean.”

Because no matter what the buried corpse keeps insisting, that concept is anything but alive.

Eulogies may be emailed to me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.