Maine Clean Election backers try new tack to free $3.5 million trapped by legislative gridlock

Good morning from Augusta, where advocates for Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign financing system are arguing that the program can proceed without the approval lawmakers have been fighting over for months.

The issue has Augusta all bound up. The Legislature is in the midst of a rock-hard impasse over a bill that seeks to fix a typo and free up $3.5 million that is scheduled to go to candidates between now and the November election. House Republicans are withholding their support for the bill and Democrats won’t allow a vote on a tax code overhaul until it passes. Lawmakers have not convened in more than a month, as a special session called largely to address those issues — and a few others — looks more like a self-induced coma than a work in progress.

However, the Maine Ethics Commission, which administers the fund, meets Thursday to consider the argument that a Maine Superior Court decision earlier this month has already clarified the issue and no legislative approval is needed. John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, is expected to argue that the court order from Justice William Stokes makes it clear that the already-budgeted money can be used to fund campaigns for qualified MCEA candidates. Brautigam told Maine Public on Monday that “the drafting error is actually not as consequential as people think it might be.”

The issue could return to court. Brautigam said if he can’t convince a majority of the four sitting commissioners to support releasing the $3.5 million without the legislative typo fix, his group will file another lawsuit. That would continue a train of State House issues that have ended up in court this year, including Medicaid expansion and ranked-choice voting.

The court order already freed up $1 million in funding, but that was money due to candidates only through June. About 120 candidates for the Legislature and one for governor — State Treasurer Terry Hayes — are counting on the money for their campaigns. However, Gov. Paul LePage’s finance department refused to cut checks to the candidates and handed off that responsibility to the commission’s staff, which had never previously fulfilled that role.

Supporters say Republicans are just trying to lob a monkey wrench into the program, which LePage and many Republicans oppose but have been unable to abolish in the State House or at the polls. Aside from their ideological belief that the program is “welfare for politicians,” there could be implications on the election if the money doesn’t go out. There are more Democrats using the program than Republicans.

The commission’s decision could have major ramifications. If it defuses the clean election issue, there would be little reason for the Legislature to continue its absence from Augusta and inaction on tax conformity. That could have the added effect of prompting long-awaited proposals from LePage around revamping Maine’s child protective services program, which he has said he wants considered on their own, without other issues like these laying around to be used as political bargaining chips.

If the commission does not vote to distribute the money and the issue goes back to court, that could easily stretch into September, meaning this year’s campaign season could be a short one for some candidates.

A familiar name from ‘Ballotgate’

Eagle-eyed political watchers will remember his role in one of Maine’s biggest political scandals. Last week, the Lincoln County News reported that Newcastle lawyer Jonathan Hull was arrested on charges related to allegedly taking thousands of dollars — which he repaid — from a nonprofit group that runs student exchanges between Bath and Japan. Hull told the newspaper that he didn’t know “what this is all about.”

Hull served as the lawyer for then-House Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, during the 1992 “Ballotgate” scandal, when Kenneth Allen, a senior aide to Martin, broke into a State House ballot storage room to alter tallies in favor of Democratic legislative candidates.

Allen and another aide were eventually convicted for their roles in the break-in; Martin was never charged. But it led to Maine passing a 1993 term-limits law aimed at limiting the powerful speaker with only mixed success. While Martin left the speaker’s office in 1994, he is still a major power broker in the Legislature today.

Trump approval still underwater in Maine

Maine likes the president more than any other New England state, but Morning Consult has published monthly approval ratings by state for all of President Donald Trump’s term and the overall story didn’t change much in July. He was 7 percentage points underwater here, with 45 percent of those polled approving of the Republican president and 52 percent disapproving.

Trump has been consistently underwater in Maine since April 2017 in Morning Consult surveys. His July mark in Maine puts the state highest in New England and 22nd from the bottom — about average — among all other states and Washington, D.C., when it comes to liking the president.

His mark was lower in a Suffolk University poll released last week, though Trump was more popular in northern Maine. That’s no surprise, since he lost Maine to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 while winning the northern and more conservative 2nd Congressional District.

Reading list

  • The sale of an $8.3 million marijuana cultivation facility has gone up in smoke. A Canadian firm has canceled its purchase of the facility in Auburn because the current owner, Kevin Dean, has several medical marijuana investments in an uncertain state regulatory climate. Another man, Brian Bilodeau, has been indicted on two drug-trafficking felonies tied to Dean’s facility and there’s a court fight going on between Dean and his former business partner, Emile Clavet, that could reveal more details about his marijuana businesses.
  • Maine’s largest city is not ready to vote on whether to let non-citizens vote. After hours of public testimony, Portland City Councilor Pious Ali withdrew his request to have the city council send a referendum on non-citizen voting to the November ballot. Acknowledging that he did not have enough council votes to win approval of a referendum, Ali and other councilors voted Monday night to send the measure to a study committee.
  • A Maine coastal city will limit the number of large cruise ships that can anchor in its harbor. After a Monday night hearing in which one speaker called cruise ships an “invasive species” while others lauded them as a boost for the local economy, the Rockland City Council voted 3-2 to cap at six per year the number of large cruise ships that can disgorge passengers into the city of 7,200. The limit is temporary, as city officials work to update a 1995 harbor management plan.

The perils of being a Mustang lover

As has been previously documented in the Daily Brief, my 13-year-old may be one of the world’s most passionate fans of the Ford Mustang. As he’s learning, it’s a love affair fraught with conflict.

Last week, Ford announced that it had built its 10 millionth Mustang, which prompted the boy to remark, “well, I’ll be driving the 15 millionth someday.” But he has a problem: At 13 years old, he is already nearing 5 feet 10 inches tall and clearly in yet another growth spurt. He’s asked me more than once, with real fear in his voice, if he’s going to be too big to drive a Mustang.

I don’t know how tall he’ll be or what the Mustang can handle, but I’ve been talking a lot about the Ford F-250 pickup truck. Here’s his 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 leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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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.