Republican Lawmakers Vote To Undermine Maine’s Landmark Public Financing System

A 15-year-old law providing for public financing in the state of Maine may soon be undermined by Republican state lawmakers.

In 1996, Maine voters passed the Clean Elections Act, making it the first state in the country to have public financing for state elections. Since that time, state legislative and gubernatorial candidates have used public financing, as the Maine Public Broadcasting Network writes , to “discourage the use of special interest money out of state and, allow candidates to spend more time running for office instead of fundraising.” The system has been so successful that in 2010, “more than 80 percent of legislators used Clean Election money,” according to the Bangor Daily News.

Here’s how it works. Once candidates collect a certain number of $5 qualifying checks, they receive a set amount of funds – just under $5,500 for contested state representative races – to run their campaign. If their opponent or an outside group spends additional money, the “clean elections candidate” receives matching funds as well.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar matching funds provision in Arizona. As a result, Maine legislators agreed to revisit their state’s law and bring it into compliance.

However, Republicans are using the opportunity to try to undermine the state’s entire public financing system. Though a number of ideas have been proposed by the Maine Ethics Commission to bring the state’s program into compliance, Republicans rejected those proposals in a party-line vote yesterday. Instead, GOP lawmakers simply eliminated the matching funds provision without offering any alternatives to fill the void:

In a strict party line vote on Tuesday, Republican members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee narrowly favored stripping the matching funds provision from the Maine Clean Election Act.

Maine lawmakers have been struggling since that court ruling with a way to address the elimination of matching funds and have debated two options put forth by the Maine Ethics Commission.

Under the first option, the state would pay candidates fixed amounts upfront — $7,716 for House candidates and $33,617 for Senate candidates, significantly more than the current allocations. Under the second, clean candidates could get extra payments by collecting additional $5 checks from private donors. In order to qualify for public funding in the first place, candidates need to collect a minimum number of such donations.

Republicans have rejected both.

State Rep. Diane Russell (D), one of the clean election law’s leading proponents, told ThinkProgress that the effort to roll back Maine’s public financing system could have national ramifications. “Maine is the model state,” said Russell. “If they kill public financing here, they put the stake in the heart nationally.”

The full legislature will take up the issue in January.