Scrub Maine’s ‘Clean’ Election Law

As they begin their work, members of the 122nd Maine Legislature will be forced to grapple with more than 2,000 proposed bills.

Lawmakers from Caribou to Kittery have vowed to make meaningful tax relief a legislative priority, and that makes a lot of sense especially when considering the sentiment of those who chose our state’s newest leaders.

But there is at least one other item that should be a priority for our new crop of lawmakers, and that involves cleaning up Maine’s so-called Clean Elections Act.

A loophole in the 1996 law allows senior lawmakers to use clean election funds to help bolster their leadership chances by providing funding to colleagues. Although the law prevents those who use the program from accepting money from PACs, it does not restrict participants from funneling their funds to other candidates.

In a Dec. 17 Portland Press Herald story by David Hench, House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings said he would like to see the loophole closed. “When you become a clean election candidate, the public has a higher standard for your campaign and for your efforts to reduce the influence of special interests,” Cummings was quoted in that article.

Cummings is right, and the loophole should be closed immediately.

But there are other problems with the law, including its name. Having one candidate run as a “clean” candidate strongly implies that his or her traditionally-funded opponent could be “dirty.” Traditionally funded candidates for the Legislature cannot accept more than $250 from any group or individual.

Although the law is eight years old, it is still relatively new. And while its intent is certainly noble, there are some kinks that will need to be worked out. Some people have raised doubts about how well it accomplishes its goals of leveling the so-called playing field.

In an Oct. 17, 2002, published by the Cato Institute, Patrick Basham, a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government, and Martin Zelder, an economist and senior associate at Analysis Group Economics, contend that Maine’s Clean Election law “has helped to entrench incumbents, diminishing electoral competition,” despite being designed to accomplish the opposite effect.

In Maine’s last primary campaign, 308 of the 429 legislative candidates (72 percent) took advantage of the publicly-financed campaign option, begging the question whether a cash-strapped state can afford such a program.

As long as power corrupts, politicians will always need to be mindful of voter suspicions regarding undue influence and the possibility of “bought and paid for” candidates.

Closing the loophole would be a good step in the right direction.

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