Meetings of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices do not usually give way to moments of high drama. But supporters of public financing breathed a deep sigh of relief on Thursday after the bipartisan commission’s four members ruled to release $3.5 million in previously held-up funds to 120 candidates in races for the state House, Senate, and Governor.
This decision was only the latest chapter in a long-running partisan saga about Maine’s Clean Election Program. First passed in 1996 by citizen initiative, the voluntary program provides public funds to candidates for governor and state Legislature if they raise a threshold amount in $5 donations. In exchange for public financing, participants agree to certain restrictions, including spending limits and a prohibition on using other funds. In addition, qualifying candidates in general elections against privately financed rivals can receive supplemental funding provided they continue to collect small donations.
Public financing regimes like Maine’s are critical engines for democratic participation in the age of super PACs and dark money. They lower barriers to entry for candidates who may not have access to large pools of money and encourage candidates to spend time courting ordinary citizens instead of behind-closed-doors dialing for dollars from well-heeled special interests.
The fight over the $3.5 million stemmed from — believe it or not — a typographical error in Maine’s biennial budget passed last summer. The mistake left the commission arguing that it was unable to distribute funds during the 2019 fiscal year, which began on July 1. To what degree legislators were aware of the blunder is anyone’s guess. Discussing the error this June, Republican State Representative Jeff Timberlake conceded that he was aware of the problem but kept quiet. “Our caucus has never been a big proponent of Clean Elections,” he acknowledged. The Legislature reconvened for a special session this…