Out-of-state campaign spending explosion prompts call for new Maine rules

It’s transition week in Augusta with the 128th Legislature moving in and the 127th bidding us adieu.

The will be a lot of news to report this week, perhaps most notably the swearing in of the new Legislature and elections of constitutional officers on Wednesday, but there’s still some looking backward to do in Maine political news before we move on to the looking forward.

On Thursday, the Maine Ethics Commission convenes for one of its busiest meetings of the year. On its agenda is a list of alleged campaign finance violations by candidates, political action committees and parties for last month’s elections. Most of those violations are minor in terms of the fines that could be assessed but if you’re interested in up-to-the-minute transparency — as Maine election laws dictate, particularly in the days before an election — this is important stuff.

While some of the violations were around the disclosure of top donors under new rules put into law by a 2015 citizen-initiated referendum, others were for filings that were a day or two late because of mistakes made by campaigns or, in one case, an internet connectivity issue.

Perhaps more important are two sets of new rules or laws being proposed by the commission. The first set, for which there is a public hearing scheduled, involve that 2015 referendum we read about recently (VERY recently), particularly changes seed money and qualifying contribution limits that are already in practice but not in the commission’s rules. While the opportunity to comment on those changes is Thursday morning, written comments will be accepted through Dec. 19. The changes will be subject to legislative approval next year. Take a look at the proposed new rules by clicking here.

Also under development by commission staff is new proposed legislation related to the flow of campaign cash from outside Maine into local elections. Specifically, it involves organizations that contribute more than $100,000 to Maine-based political committees, which is a prospect that is becoming more common.

This issue has been under debate for years in Maine but intensified in 2009 when the National Organization for Marriage funnelled more than $2 million to a PAC called Stand for Marriage Maine, which provided the bulk of spending in favor of a referendum to repeal a successful Baldacci-era same-sex marriage law. (Same-sex marriage in Maine was restored in another referendum in 2012.)

The ethics commission and the National Organization for Marriage sparred for years about disclosing its donor list and the issue was eventually settled by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ordered NOM to identify its donors in August of 2015.

Based on that court decision, the ethics commission staff is proposing to beef up the law.

“Our bill is intended to give members of the public a fighting chance to understand who these out-of-state groups are by requiring them to file a one-time report with the commission during or before October of the election year,” wrote Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne in a memo to the commission. “It is the job of a state’s campaign finance system to make this information available to ordinary voters, to the press and to activists — without overly burdening the individuals and organizations involved.”

In 2016, at least 13 organizations contributed more than $100,000 to Maine PACs, party committees or ballot question committees. See that list by clicking here and scrolling down to page 11.

The new proposed law, a version of which was floated in 2015 but rejected by the commission, would better specify stricter reporting requirements for political action committees and require out-of-state organizations that spent at least $100,000 in Maine to disclose various information, including their top five donors and a certified statement about whether the organizations have been raising money specifically to influence elections in Maine.

On one hand, this stuff is pretty far into the weeds. On the other hand, as Maine breaks and re-breaks records for outside spending in its elections, laws like these are crucial to understanding who the behind-the-scenes players are in Maine elections. — Christopher Cousins

Clean elections participation spiked in 2016

Participation in Maine Clean Election Act campaign financing, which provides taxpayer dollars for qualifying candidates, spiked this year after a few election cycles in decline, according to new data released by the Maine Ethics Commission. Changes between then and now include a federal court decision which affected the matching funds provision in the law and that 2015 citizen initiated referendum, which we’ve read about (twice) recently. (VERY recently).

The commission provide more than $3.3 million in payments to MCEA candidates this year, which is a level not seen since the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial election years. A total of 227 of 357 candidates in the 2016 general election — about 64 percent — used the program in 2016.

As usual, Democrats used the program more than Republicans. About 80 percent of House Democrats used public financing, compared with about 45 percent of House Republicans. In the Senate, 79 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans used the program.

There’s a lot more fresh data available about clean elections in Maine, which you can see by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hit

  • The recount of the marijuana legalization question apparently passed by Maine voters in November started slowly on Monday. David Boyer, campaign manager for the pro-legalization effort, said the “no” side brought six of 10 ballot observers to the recount. The opposition requested the recount — which will cost Maine taxpayers as much as $500,000 — after losing by just over 4,000 votes. Spokespeople for the opposition couldn’t be reached for comment by the Daily Brief’s deadline. A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office said the recount was proceeding. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

To restore your faith in humanity

Religious wars are waging all over the world — including to some degree here in the United States — but there is at least one shining example of tolerance and acceptance. Check out this wonderful article by the BDN’s Judy Harrison about how two Bangor churches have combined and preserved their mutual existences. Here’s today’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.