Maine is edging closer to a public campaign financing crisis

Good morning from Augusta, where concern is growing that the Maine Clean Election Fund won’t be able to make payments to legislative and gubernatorial candidates — or even pay the Maine Ethics Commission’s rent — after July 1, even though there is enough funding.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said Wednesday that there’s a “really serious problem” that “amounts to changing the rules of the game in the middle of an election.”

At issue is one of the dozens of bills left unfinished last month when House Republicans in the Legislature voted to adjourn instead of extend the session to complete unfinished work. The bill in question would clarify or correct a number of errors and inconsistencies in Maine’s laws, including one involving the state’s public campaign financing program that results from an amendment to last year’s state biennial budget bill.

The amendment was meant to help, by changing the schedule of payments from the state’s General Fund to the Maine Clean Election Fund so there would be enough money to cover all of the publicly financed campaigns this year. Instead, it mistakenly included language that bars the commission from paying for anything at all from the fund after July 1, including payments to candidates and overhead expenses such as rent and reimbursements for services from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

“The Legislature merely needs to authorize the commission to spend the cash that is currently in the fund,” wrote Wayne in a memo to commissioners. Wayne said the problem could be fixed by the passage of the bill or “partially addressed by a financial order signed by the governor.” Gov. Paul LePage’s office did not respond to a question from the BDN Wednesday about whether the governor intends to do that.

This issue threatens to seriously reduce how much funding clean election candidates receive for the November election. Initial general election payments are scheduled to be made next month — $5,075 for House candidates, $20,275 for Senate candidates and $600,000 for gubernatorial candidates — but those candidates are eligible for additional payments through October if they can collect enough qualifying contributions.

The biggest impacts would be in the governor’s race. Three candidates are potentially counting on the funding: Republican Garrett Mason and Democrat Betsy Sweet if they win their party’s primaries, and independent Terry Hayes. Mason and Sweet, because they receive additional money for their primary campaigns, could net up to a total of $2.7 million by October.

“To deprive them of sufficient campaign funding to deliver their campaign messages to voters would be fundamentally unfair,” said Wayne.

Candidates have been warned. The ethics commission sent a letter to all of them on Wednesday that they’d receive their initial general election funding in mid-June but that additional payments are at risk.

“The best solution for this problem is for the Legislature to hold a special session and fix this legislatively,” Wayne wrote. “If you would like to encourage a legislative fix, please feel free to contact legislative leadership or the staff of the caucuses.”

Arguments coming today in LePage Medicaid suit

Attorneys for Medicaid expansion advocates and the state will offer oral arguments today. Expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act was passed by Maine voters last year, but the Republican governor hasn’t implemented it and advocates sued him over it in April after the administration blew a deadline to get a plan to the federal government.

The LePage administration’s legal team has countered by arguing that he doesn’t have the authority to implement a law that the Legislature hasn’t funded. The two sides will argue the case before a state court judge in Portland at 10 a.m. today.

Reading list

  • A government watchdog review of the deaths of two girls, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, has faulted the state in one of the cases. The report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which was released this morning, says “poor job performance” could caused a lapse in intervention that could have reduced the risk for one of the girls. The report is the subject of a hearing with the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee that started at 9 a.m. today.
  • Diane Russell is facing new questions about her campaign finance filings. Staff for the Maine Ethics Commission have recommended that the former state representative, who is running for governor as a Democrat, be found in violation of rules that require candidates to be specific about the reason for certain expenditures and to disclose when they make payments to people who live with them. Russell, who made more than $12,000 in payments to a campaign staffer for whom she provided a room, said the violations were oversights she is working to correct. No fine is being considered by the commission.
  • Maine Republicans argued their legal case to be left out of ranked-choice voting on Wednesday. Lawyers for the party told a judge in U.S. District Court that using the new voting method would violate their constitutional rights to free association. A decision is expected early next week.
  • Maine’s elver season ended this morning amid claims of illegal sales. The fishery was shut down two weeks early at 6 a.m. today by the Maine Department of Marine Resources because of illegal sales where buyers are paying substantially less for the tiny eels on the black market. In March, the price per pound for legal elvers was at a record high of more than $2,700 a pound. As of Wednesday, approximately 9,060 pounds of Maine’s 9,688-pound quota had already been harvested.
  • Isleboro residents are suing the state over ferry service fare hikes. The island residents are suing over a doubling of the cost ot tickets to and from the mainland. The suit filed Wednesday in Kennebec County Superior Court argues that the fee hikes mean “many long-term residents and businesses can no longer afford to live or do business on Isleboro.” Under the new rates, an adult from Isleboro who crosses with a car will see a cost increase from $13.75 to $30.

Young ears hear everything

I was driving my boys to school this week when I heard the 7-year-old in the back seat saying to himself “Yanny, Laurel. Yanny. Laurel.”

In case you’ve been under a rock, one of the internet’s recent viral sensations is that we all hear differently and that played the same sound, some of us hear one name and others hear the other, depending on your ears. It’s sort of like that dress that everyone was fighting over the color of in 2015.  

“Why are you saying that?” I asked my boy. He was stretching out the words and forcing the pronunciations.

“Because everyone says those words sound different to everyone else. I can hear both, see? Yyyyannnnny. Laaauuuurrel.”

Well, that’s settled. Here’s your soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at, or

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.