2013-08-02 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Paying more for less
By Al Diamon

“Clean elections” is one of those oxymoronic phrases like “modest celebrity” or “drug-free professional athlete” that I have difficulty comprehending. Celebs are by definition egotists. Sports stars are by inclination cheaters. And political campaigns are by necessity dirty.

No laws are going to change that.

Nevertheless, the folks at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections continue their futile attempts to limit the influence of filthy lucre on politics. I don’t understand why they insist on trying to divert what is essentially a force of nature, but I applaud their latest effort.

Even though I fervently oppose much of it.

The do-gooders have proposed a referendum in 2014 or 2015 to revamp the Maine Clean Election Act to provide more public money for candidates for governor and the Legislature. This is supposed to mitigate the effects of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have found the matching funds provisions of taxpayer-fi- nancing laws to be unconstitutional.

The initiative would also decrease the amount individuals and corporations could contribute to candidates’ campaigns. And it would slap a 15 percent surcharge on all court fines, with the extra cash going to pay not for schools, health care or roads, but for politicians’ TV ads, lawn signs and Twitter accounts.

All that strikes me as pointless and burdensome. Not to mention that since voters approved public financing of campaigns in 1996, there’s been not a shred of evidence that it’s produced better quality legislators. (I could make a strong argument that the opposite is true, that it’s actually helped elect more useless boobs.)

No successful gubernatorial candidate has ever used Clean Election money. But a host of spectacularly unsuccessful ones (Libby Mitchell, Pat LaMarche, Peter Mills) have.

There’s also been no sign that it’s discouraged anyone from spending outrageously to win an election. In fact, campaign spending by independent groups has risen every year since public funding became law, until, in the last election, it amounted to more than was spent by all legislative candidates combined.

In short, the Clean Election Act has produced no benefits.

Nevertheless, I might vote for this revision.

That’s because mixed in among the fanciful ideas for creating a better world by spending more public money on campaigns (thereby encouraging political action committees to spend more, too) and further limiting the amount of private donations to candidates (thereby making contributions to secretive outside organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors’ names even more appealing), there are a handful of common-sense ideas that would increase transparency, make cheating less attractive and eliminate a glaring conflict of interest.

Let’s start with increased disclosure. Right now, anyone seeking to curry favor with a newly elected governor can make a donation to his or her transition fund, which covers the cost of inaugural activities and other frivolity.

There’s no law requiring the source of those contributions be made public. Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill to correct that earlier this year, because he claimed it called into question the integrity of the governor-elect and “disrespects the decision made at the ballot box.”

Uh, right. Like there’s something wrong with disrespecting dumb decisions voters make, such as approving Clean Elections or electing LePage.

In any case, the proposed referendum requires full disclosure and limits what governors can do with any leftover funds, so that the money doesn’t quietly slip away to political organizations dedicated to advancing the governor’s agenda, which is what happened with LePage’s extra transition cash.

As for cheating, the current law all but encourages it. Late filings of campaign finance reports in the crucial closing days before an election are punishable by fines that wouldn’t buy a decent dinner at a fancy Portland restaurant. The proposed revision allows for doubling and even tripling those penalties.

Finally, there’s the ridiculous loophole that allows Clean Election candidates, particularly those running for legislative leadership, to use public money for their own campaigns while simultaneously accepting private donations through PACs they operate to help out other political hopefuls. The initiative would outlaw that practice by banning taxpayerfunded candidates from having any role in PACs.

It’s worth noting that in the past, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has refused to support attempts to do away with this practice, fearful that to do so would annoy powerful legislators. Good to know the group has finally grown a pair.

I’d prefer to get rid of public funding of elections altogether, but that isn’t going to happen. This measure makes some slight improvements, coupled with some unnecessary expansions of the act. On balance, I’ll probably vote for it.

Remember, I said probably.

When emailing me at aldiamon@herniahill.net, please use privately funded methods.

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