Eye on Augusta: Question 1 & the Future of Maine’s Clean Elections Program
Thursday, October 29, 2015 11:06 AM
Several years ago, when veteran Maine Republican lawmaker Peter Mills was running for re-election for state senate, he became determined to find out why he kept losing the tiny town of Moscow. So one year, after he had collected his 150 individual $5 checks to qualify for public financing, he set out to knock on every single door in the little Somerset County town of 512 people.
Supporters of Question 1 rally
“At the end of a gravel road there was a trailer with a big skidder worth probably ten times what the trailer was worth,” recalled Mills at a forum at the University of Southern Maine last month. “I knocked on the door and a logger came out and I said, ‘Hey! I’m Peter Mills and I’m running for the state senate and I’d sure like to have your vote.’ And he said, ‘You got it! Anyone is better than that idiot we’ve had in there for ten years!’”
Mills said that the amusing anecdote illustrates how effectively Maine’s Clean Elections Act allows candidates to spend more time connecting with voters and less time asking for money from donors. Maine is one of only five states that provides public financing for state legislative candidates, thanks to a referendum approved by 56 percent of the voters in 1996. In order to qualify for public financing, Clean Elections candidates must collect a set number of individual $5 contributions from voters. In exchange for public funds, they are allowed to take a very limited amount of private seed money. Collecting those 150 checks for his senate campaigns took a lot of effort, particularly in his rural district, but Mills said it also made him more accountable to the little guy, rather than the large donor.
“Running for senate … it could take an hour to get four checks,” Mills said. “It’s a very, very time consuming thing, but it does force you into those households on an intimate level.”
Supreme Court Decision Threatens Clean Elections
However, in an era when the highest court in the land has equated money with free speech, clean elections programs have come under threat by a tidal wave of outside money. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision helped open the floodgates for unlimited amounts of money in elections. Citizens United also helped trigger an explosion of “dark money” groups, which are allowed to shield the identities of their political donors by funneling the money through nonprofit “social welfare” organizations. Spending by dark-money groups increased from $5.2 million in 2006 to over $300 million during the 2012 presidential cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Then in 2011, another Supreme Court decision struck down a provision in the Maine Clean Elections Act that allowed Clean Elections candidates in competitive races to receive matching public money to respond to the onslaught of attack ads from outside groups. Without the matching funds, Clean Elections supporters say candidates in hotly contested races have become like sitting ducks. From 2008 to 2012, outside spending in state legislative races increased from $600,000 to $3.6 million, according to the advocacy group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. In large part as a result of the Supreme Court decisions, the number of local legislative candidates using the clean elections program dropped from over 80 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2014.
What’s in Question 1
In order to adapt to the post-Citizens United world, a bipartisan coalition is supporting a referendum that would strengthen the Maine Clean Elections Act. Question 1 on the November 3 ballot would increase funding for the Clean Elections program from $2 million to $3 million a year. Currently, the program is funded by state tax revenues, a voluntary $3 state income tax checkoff, voluntary contributions and fines imposed for violating campaign finance laws. The ballot measure also includes a replacement for the matching-funds provision that would be compliant with the Court’s ruling. The replacement provision would allow legislative candidates in competitive districts to collect more individual $5 contributions from registered voters, which would be matched with additional public funds.
The initiative also would increase fines for individuals and groups that break campaign finance laws and require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their top three donors in political advertisements. But as critics note, it would not prevent dark-money groups from shielding the identities of their donors behind innocuous-sounding names like “Mainers for a Prosperous Maine.” Finally, Question 1 would require newly elected governors to disclose the names of donors who contribute money for their transition expenses, which is a process that reformers say is open to potential corruption. To pay for the $6 million package, the proposed law would direct the Legislature to find the money by closing corporate tax incentives identified as “risky investments” by the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA).
In an op-ed published in August, Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) wrote that the measure would be the first campaign finance reform of its kind passed since the Citizens United decision and would be “yet another example of how Maine is leading the way to ensure that the power of our democracy is in the hands of the people.”
Chamber of Commerce Steps In
Opposition to the referendum has been driven by ideology for some and rational self-interest for others.
Last week, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of business groups came out against Question 1 due to the provision to eliminate the $6 million in business tax incentives. The ballot measure does not identify which exact tax breaks should be eliminated, but if passed, the law would force the Legislature to revisit controversial tax subsidies like the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement (BETR) program and the Pine Tree Development Zone (PTZ) program. In 2013, the Legislature set up a special task force to find $40 million by closing some of the same tax loopholes, but lawmakers were unsuccessful in coming to an agreement.
A 2012 study of the state’s 197 tax loopholes by the Pew Charitable Trusts named Maine as one of 25 states that are “trailing behind” in terms of evaluating the economic effectiveness of its tax incentives. A 2006 audit by OPEGA estimated Maine spends over $100 million in tax breaks that the agency considers risky investments that could yield little in return for the average taxpayer.
In a statement, Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors said 1,600 businesses use BETR to reduce their property tax liability, which helps them compete with businesses in other states that do not tax personal property. He added that over 280 companies in Maine are certified under the PTZ program.
“If passed, Question 1 would eliminate business tax programs that are critical to continued economic investment in Maine — investments that grow our state’s economy and create and retain jobs across our state,” said Connors. “We cannot afford this measure as written and its detrimental consequences to Maine’s economic growth.”
The coalition opposing Question 1 includes the Maine Tourism Association, the Maine Retail Association, the Maine Auto Dealers Association, the Maine Energy Marketers Association, the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Forest Products Council. Connors said while his group opposes the funding mechanism, it takes no position on the Clean Elections program itself.
However, the Maine Small Business Coalition, which represents 4,000 small business owners in Maine, issued its own statement in support of Question 1.
“This referendum is written so that it will only close tax loopholes which are proven to not help the economy,” wrote Bettyann Sheats, owner of Finishing Touches Shower Doors in Auburn. “But you know what would be good for Maine’s small business owners? A tax, budget, and regulatory environment that is not dominated by big, out-of-state businesses. The first step in creating an economy that works for everyone — including small business owners — should be getting the corrupting influence of big money out of politics. Question 1 is a good step in that direction.”
LePage and Tea Party Mobilize
Meanwhile, another more ideologically driven coalition of hard-right conservatives has mounted its own campaign against Question 1 under the slogan “No More Welfare for Politicians!” The group formed by Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst), Rep. Joel Stetkis (R-Canaan) and former Knox County senate candidate Paula Sutton argue that Clean Elections is a wasteful program being promoted by out-of-state liberals to elect more liberal lawmakers. In an interview with Portland radio station WGAN, Lockman, who was a Clean Elections candidate himself, said the program forces taxpayers to elect “limousine liberal” Justin Alfond of Portland at the expense of nursing homes.
Stetkis came under fire for using race-baiting tactics in the campaign earlier this month when he tried to stir up opposition to the referendum on the “Skowhegan Indian Pride” Facebook page, which was created to oppose an effort to remove the Indian as the local high school’s mascot. In his posting, Stetkis asked members if they wanted their tax money going to “someone like Maulian Smith,” a Penobscot Indian woman who has been leading the effort to remove the controversial mascot. When confronted about the posting by WMTW reporter Paul Merrill, Stetkis said he didn’t mean any harm. In a likely attempt to capture the same energy that defeated last year’s anti-bear baiting referendum, Stetkis’ group has also created blaze orange lawn signs with the puzzling slogan “Protect OUR Heritage” and “Our Rights are NOT for Sale!” Stetkis did not return a request for clarification.
Gov. LePage, a longtime opponent of clean elections, has also been stepping up his attacks against the referendum.
“The Legislature is going to have to fund it, but that’s like giving your wife your checkbook,” he cracked at a town hall meeting in Auburn last week. “I’m telling ya, it’s giving your wife the checkbook. Go spend.”
The Rest of the Country Is Watching
In a twist of irony, one of the main talking points for the opponents of Question 1 is that 80 percent of the $1.3 million raised by the “Yes on 1” campaign has come from out-of-state. Donors have included wealthy individuals individuals like New York investor Sean Eldridge, who is the husband of Facebook founder Chris Hughes, Hollywood director J.J. Abrams, and the Massachusetts-based group Proteus/Piper Fund.
But as supporters of the measure point out, there’s more at stake than just Maine’s landmark clean election law. Last month, Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, who has authored legislation to create a federal clean election system, said that Question 1 could help build momentum for campaign finance reform in the same way that same-sex marriage was first legalized in the states.
“As we try to create a national movement around a new way of funding campaigns in this country, Maine is a leader,” said Sarbanes. “And to be able to point to a successful outcome to this initiative in November, will really help push that forward.”