Clean Elections controversy shows lack of integrity

Posted: August 16, 2018 | Senator Breen

Our democracy works best when every person has a chance to participate in a government where decisions are made in an open, transparent way. It’s one of the reasons I take great pride in Maine’s innovative Clean Elections law, which helps limit dark money, lobby money, and special interests in politics. Regular people like you and me know that there is too much money in politics, leading to graft, corruption and policies that do not reflect the will of the people.

Our Clean Elections program is uniquely effective because when Maine taxpayers fund elections, it’s really easy for lawmakers to be accountable to Maine taxpayers, plain and simple.

Passed in 1996, the law establishes a voluntary program for candidates who make a choice not to accept large private donations from corporations, lobbyists, or special interests. Once a candidate demonstrates substantial community support behind her or his campaign through small contributions of $5 from voters in his or her district, that candidate qualifies for additional public funding and is prohibited from accepting any outside money.

By itself, this law doesn’t solve the problem of big money in politics. But it’s an important first step.

Unfortunately, funding for this program is in jeopardy due to extreme partisanship from Gov. Paul LePage and his House Republican allies. First, Gov. LePage has since March refused to release over $1 million that he is required by law to make available to candidates. And second, the governor’s followers in the House have blocked any effort to correct a typo in our 2017 biennial budget in an effort to prevent funds from being released for this November’s elections. Even worse, they are holding up a bi-partisan agreement on conformity with the new federal tax code, which has much broader implications for Maine people and businesses.

One has to wonder why Gov. LePage and House Republicans harbor such animosity for the Clean Elections program in the first place. Why are they so wedded to “traditional” fund-raising, where legislative seats are subject to the influence of monied interests up and down the state? What’s so bad about being accountable to the taxpayers who put you in office rather than to big donors? What’s so bad about full transparency rather than dark money? I just don’t get it.

In their continued attack on this program, they are now trying to take advantage of an error made by a nonpartisan staffer in a massive budget document. They are also reneging on a bi-partisan budget deal we made over a year ago. It’s really a snapshot of what it has been like to try and work across the aisle in the House lately. The “Errors Bill” that these Republicans are holding up typically passes without controversy and has been considered as routine housekeeping.

Clean Elections law has already been debated and settled. The Legislature funded it in a bi-partisan budget bill over a year ago. The governor is required by law to release the funds; it is not up to his discretion. Trying to re-open the debate again simply because there was a typo in the budget document is a cheap shot. When I enter into an agreement – either in Augusta or in my own life – I honor it. I don’t look for ways to weasel out of deals because someone made a drafting error.

This matter still has to be resolved through negotiations in the Legislature. Whether or not the governor is required to do his job and release the funds is now with the courts. In both cases, it’s my hope that common sense and integrity prevail.

As lawmakers, it is our job to represent the interests of the people in our district, not special interests. Maine’s Clean Elections program brings us closer to that endeavor. It’s time for lawmakers to demonstrate integrity and make sensible compromises that reflect the values and character of the people we represent.