Question 1 has been criticized as welfare for politicians and, conversely, touted as an initiative to keep so-called dark money honest in Maine elections.

In the last election cycle, $14 million in outside money was spent in Maine, and it has a significant impact on the election system, said Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, a proponent of the initiative.

The citizens’ initiative aims to strengthen penalties for violations of Maine’s campaign finance laws, ensure the top three donors are revealed in advertising, and increase from $2 million to $3 million the public funds designated for Clean Elections candidates.

Paula Sutton of Warren is opposed to Question 1. She is a business owner and was a candidate in 2014 for the District 12 Senate seat. She was defeated by David Miramant of Camden, a Democrat, who ran as a Clean Elections candidate.

Sutton and Katz said both major political parties accept the funding, and that it does not benefit either Republicans or Democrats. Katz, a three-term Clean Elections candidate, said Question 1 is not a partisan issue.

Sutton said the recommended expansion of the Maine Clean Elections Act is a misuse of funds that could instead go toward funding schools, nursing homes and infrastructure across the state.

Sutton was a traditionally funded candidate, meaning she raised money privately from donors. As she described it, she raised the money for her campaign by going door to door meeting people and asking for their support. Donors and political action committees were limited to giving $370 to her direct campaign. However, political action committees, or PACs, can produce their own advertising supporting or opposing a candidate, and spend as much as they want.

The Ethics Commission said a candidate can accept $750 in total, because the primary race and the general election race are considered to be two cycles.

Sutton said candidates should pull their own weight, as she did, rather than relying on taxpayers to fund campaigns. "I earned it myself, and it was a good opportunity to meet people," she said, adding that the term “Clean Elections” implies that money she raised was dirty, an inference she rejects. “If you have good ideas, you will get elected on your own merit,” she said.

Sutton said an idea to stem the flow of money during a political season could be to shorten the election cycle.

The claim by proponents that expanding the Maine Clean Elections Act will keep big money out of Maine politics is not true, Sutton said. PACs are the contributors of big money in politics, and this ballot initiative does not stop PAC money — a complexity she said many people have not understood.

"It is disingenuous to say it takes big money out of politics," she said of Question 1.

Sutton said proponents' claim that expanding public financing helps give average citizens power is hollow. “The power is in a vote,” she said.

When asked whether Maine Clean Elections money encourages candidates to run for office who wouldn't have otherwise, as claimed by Question 1 proponents, Sutton said there is no way to ascertain that, as there is no way to know how much personal capital a candidate has when deciding to run for office.

Sutton said many blue-collar candidates raise their own money for their campaigns, and if a volunteer who works as treasurer for a candidate makes a mistake in disclosing money, then the treasurer could be subjected to higher fines if the initiative is adopted.

The money to fund the Clean Elections expansion would be transferred from corporate tax breaks that are deemed by the Legislature's government oversight committee to have no economic benefit to the state. Sutton said business in the state is struggling as it is, and no money should be taken away from businesses, including by cutting tax breaks.

Sutton encourages people to read the 13-page bill before voting Nov. 3, and said If anyone is curious about donors, the information can be accessed online at the Maine Ethics Commission website. She said when she paid for a 30-second radio advertisement, disclosing her campaign paid for the spot took about nine seconds of the ad. Disclosing more donors would eat up more time, she said, and is unnecessary, as the information is already available online.

Sutton said the Maine Clean Elections money should not be eliminated, but should not be expanded. She said the money provides an opportunity for the misuse of funds, ordering more automated calls and signs above the money candidates already have. She said she sees no real benefit to expanding the fund.

When asked whether big money in politics is a problem, Sutton said it depends on whether it is for or against you.

The television campaign ads that Question 1 supporters are running are hypocritical, she said, because the ads do not disclose the top three donors, as supporters are trying to have implemented by law. She also pointed out that a lot of the money raised by proponents of Question 1 is, in fact, from outside the state, about $500,000 from New York, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts.

Addressing penalties for campaign finance law infractions, Sutton said violations are generally not a significant issue, adding that, of the few errors, a majority are late filings by candidates. A $5,000 fine is a large penalty for a mistake, she said, and can deter a volunteer treasurer from joining a campaign for fear of incurring a penalty.

According to the Maine Ethics Commission, which imposes the penalties, there is a distinction between people volunteering for a campaign and big, out-of-state professional organizations. While there are not many serious infractions concerning the Maine Clean Elections Act, there can be substantial violations of the state’s campaign finance laws.

The largest fine imposed by the five-person panel was $50,000 in 2009 against a national organization that opposed same-sex marriage when it did not register with the state and file spending reports, said Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.

Proponents of Question 1 argue that when you are spending tens of millions of dollars on a campaign, paying a $10,000 fine can be considered a cost of doing business. Increasing the penalties to, say, 100 percent, can give the ethics commission panel more discretion.

Katz said the penalties are to deter outside special interest money from deliberately breaking Maine's campaign finance laws.

Katz, disagreeing with Sutton, said this initiative is specifically aimed at political action committees, making penalties tougher and ensuring donors are disclosed for more transparency. Katz said the proposals give more teeth to campaign finance laws. “Eighty percent of Mainers believe that big money has too much influence,” he said, and challenged opponents of Question 1 to offer their own solutions.

The Yes on Question 1 campaign is Maine-born and run, with 1,500 contributions coming from within the state, as well 1,000 volunteers working on the ground. “It is really a grassroots effort,” Katz said.

The senator acknowledged there is outside money helping to fuel the campaign, but said those contributors have nothing to gain in a selfish sense, but would like to foster good government and have similar initiatives pass in other states.

Under the Constitution, specifically, the First Amendment, it is impossible to eliminate outside spending, but increasing transparency so people are aware of who is trying to influence their vote is part of the goal, Katz said.

Maine was a leader in 1996 when it approved the citizens' initiative to establish public financing for campaigns, and this is an opportunity for the state to be a leader once again, he said.

A citizen can watch an advertisement on television, paid for by a political action committee with any given name, but to list the top three donors adds a perspective to the message, whether it is funded by the chemical companies, or by a labor union. “This would help keep dark money honest in Maine,” Katz said.

The 2011 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United weakened Maine’s campaign finance laws, and dismantled the matching funds portion of the law, arguing that it effectively chilled another person’s free speech if more funds were doled out when a challenger outspent a Clean Elections candidate. With the new legislation put before voters Nov. 3, a Clean Elections candidate has the opportunity to earn additional small-dollar campaign contributions, and then receive more public funding.

“Getting 175 $5 contributions is harder than it sounds,” Katz said.

The increase in public funding will be paid for by eliminating corporate tax credits, deductions and expenditures, Katz said. “There are literally billions of tax expenditures that were passed over the years, all with good intentions, but the Legislature would then look to see if the breaks are doing as they were intended, to provide an economic benefit to the state,” Katz said. The Legislature is coming up with a process to review those major expenditures.

Katz said the base money currently allowed for candidates is generally enough to run a campaign, but that changes when money from outside the state is used to attack or propel a candidate.

The initiative will be helpful in giving disadvantaged candidates an opportunity to rally, he said, adding that reform is needed to keep integrity in the process and make it possible for a candidate to run without fear of getting buried by another candidate with a significantly larger amount of money.

Katz said Maine has the most blue-collar legislature in the country, and that people of all occupations and experiences represent the state. He said this legislation will help preserve the citizen legislature. “We are in danger of losing that,” he said.

The Maine Clean Elections Act was first voted into law as a citizens' initiative in 1996 that established public funding from the state’s General Fund. Under the new legislation, fines will be doubled if the new legislation is passed, and may be tripled if an infraction occurs within two weeks of the election.

Currently, candidates intending to finance their campaigns with public funds must show community support by collecting a minimum number of contributions of $5 or more from registered voters, payable to the Maine Clean Elections Fund, before they qualify as Clean Elections candidates. Candidates for House must collect at least 60 qualifying contributions from their district, candidates for Senate must collect at least 175 qualifying contributions from their district, and candidates for governor must get at least 3,250 qualifying contributions from anywhere in the state.

Candidates can also collect what is known as seed money before they are certified as Clean Elections candidates.

According to the Maine Ethics Commission, the money can be collected only from individuals, and cannot exceed $100 per contributor. House candidates are limited to collecting a total of $500, Senate candidates can collect up to $1,500, and gubernatorial candidates can collect up to $200,000 in contributions. Question 1 also doubles the cap on seed money collections. Once public money is disbursed to the campaign, the candidate can no longer raise funds.

Reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-1101 ext. 118 0r via email at jlaaka@villagesoup.com.

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