AUGUSTA — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing a proposal to restore Maine's public-financing elections law to its original strength.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, follows Clean Election funding cuts by the Legislature and a court ruling that led to repeal of a key provision of the Maine Clean Election Act.
The act provided public financing for legislative and gubernatorial races to level the playing field and limit the influence of outside interest groups or candidates' personal wealth in Maine elections. Voters ratified the law in 1996 and candidates began using the voluntary system in 2002.
Youngblood's bill, L.D. 1309, would nearly triple the amount of money that qualified House and Senate candidates could collect -- from $4,923 to $16,500 for contested House races and from $21,455 to $65,000 for contested Senate races. Gubernatorial candidates could collect $3.2 million, up from $1.2 million.
Candidates could accept small-dollar private contributions as long as, combined with the public money, the new funding limits are not exceeded.
Currently, candidates receive an up-front payment after qualifying as a Clean Election candidate. Before 2012, those candidates could receive so-called matching funds if they were outspent by an opponent or third-party group. However, the Legislature repealed matching funds after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that a similar provision in Arizona's public financing law was unconstitutional.
The new bill is designed to replace the matching funds by increasing the overall Clean Election allocations.
The program's supporters say providing only an up-front payment and no way to collect more funds makes some candidates vulnerable to spending or attacks by outside groups. They also attribute the elimination of matching funds to a decrease in program participation, particularly among legislative candidates.
According to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, an average 78 percent of legislative candidates used the Clean Election program from 2002 to 2010. Participation dropped to 60 percent in 2012 after the removal of matching funds.
Andrew Bossie of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections said the new proposal would restore the viability of the program.
"It would strengthen the Clean Elections law as voters initially enacted it," he said Monday.
Supporters of the program say strengthening the law would decrease the influence of special interest groups and allow candidates to spend more time interacting with voters rather than fundraising.
Bossie said public support for the program has been historically high. He said that hasn't changed, particularly in the wake of record campaign spending on national elections and a legislative election in 2012 that produced more than $3.5 million in third-party spending, shattering the $1.5 million record set in 2010.
Youngblood's proposal comes amid a national effort to limit the influence of corporations and moneyed interests in elections. That movement is led by Move to Amend, a group seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit election spending by corporations and unions.
His bill is co-sponsored by legislative leaders, including Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the assistant Republican leader in the Senate.
The bill faces obstacles despite its bipartisan support, however.
The proposal is in stark contrast to Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to zero-fund the Clean Election program in 2014.
Also, lawmakers are still far from solving the state's projected $880 million budget gap for the next two-year budget that begins July 1.
LePage's $6.3 billion budget proposal is likely to experience significant changes by lawmakers, including rejection of the governor's plan to take $4 million out of the Clean Election program. However, it's unclear if the Legislature will find the dollars to restore the Clean Election program to its prior funding levels.
The 1996 law called for a $2 million appropriation each year. But the Legislature has taken $5.2 million out of the program in recent years.
In some instances, the proposed bill would allocate more money to the program than it received before the funding changes in 2011 and 2012.
Republicans have been increasingly critical of the Clean Election program, despite heavy use by their candidates. Some argue that the program gave Clean Election candidates an advantage, particularly when matching funds were allowed.
Since then, some Republicans, most notably LePage, have said the state has other funding priorities. The LePage administration has called the Clean Election program "welfare for politicians."