The Corrosive Influence of Big Money in Maine Elections

The corrosive influence of wealthy interests in elections and government is an issue that underpins all of MPA’s campaigns.

Maine voters passed the Maine Clean Elections Act through referendum in 1996.  The program worked well during its first decade, with as many as 85% of elected members of the Maine House and Senate running and winning their seats as clean elections candidates in some years.

Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court ruled the matching funds part of our clean elections system to be unconstitutional, the 2010-2011 Republican-controlled legislature failed to act to and make an easy fix to Maine’s program. Instead of replacing matching funds with a re-qualifying system ( as proposed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections), the Legislature chose to do nothing, which resulted in candidates getting only an initial allotment of funds with no chance of increased funding if their opponents and outside interests spent heavily in their race. The number of clean elections candidates started to decline as a result. If this trend continues, only those candidates in the safest districts or easiest races will choose to run clean, allowing big money and influence back into Maine’s elections.

During the most recent legislative session, MPA worked with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections to support, “An Act to Strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act.” This bill aimed to replace the matching funds element of the law with a re-qualifying system that would allow candidates in highly contested races to access additional funds to help them stay competitive. Unfortunately, the state budget did not provide the necessary funding for this proposal. Instead, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee actually reduced clean elections funding.

The Committee rejected the recommendation from Veteran and Legal Affairs to fully fund Clean Elections. Instead, Appropriations, for the first time, removed the option of clean elections for the gubernatorial race for the next election cycle. The level of funding they allotted will provide somewhat higher distributions to legislative candidates in 2014 than in 2012, but it falls far short of the robust system that Maine voters mandates when they voted for the Clean Elections Act at the polls.

In addition to our work to improve Maine’s clean elections law, MPA is continuing to work to expose the level of undue influence that wealthy individuals and corporations have on policy-making here in Maine.  We know that national corporate interests, like Charles and David Koch, are pooling millions of dollars from like-minded conservatives to fund front groups, political campaigns, think tanks and media outlets to advance their agenda.

Despite the fact that states like Maine are traditionally Democratic strongholds, the Koch brothers have quietly built a significant network of money streams and are undeniably influencing policy-making here in Maine. MPA is working to compile research that starts to expose the ways in which this is happening. For example, we recently teamed up with Maine Conservation Alliance and Maine’s Majority Education Fund to release a report, Why Two Rich Men from Kansas Want to Dismantle Maine’s Renewable Energy Policy...And Why You Should Care, which connects the dots between wealthy industrialists like the Koch brothers and the recent attacks on Maine’s  environmental and renewable energy policies. The report can be found on the MPA website.

Phil Bartlett, who served in the State Senate from 2004-2012, connected some of the same dots between big money and policy-making in a recent Bangor Daily News editorial, explaining:

“The process goes something like this: Businesses affiliated with the Kochs (including oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil) give vast sums of money to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization that drafts conservative model bills that are introduced by legislators who are ALEC members and receive campaign donations from ALEC-affiliated groups. Once a bill is introduced, Americans for Prosperity, another national, Koch-connected group with a chapter in Maine, mobilizes to promote the legislation and attack any legislative opponents. In tandem with these efforts, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative, free-market think-tank that is a member of the Koch-funded State Policy Network, will often push out reports funded by the same corporate interests that stand to benefit from their conclusions.”

Look for more from MPA in the year ahead on issues of undue corporate influence in Maine’s government.  We’ll be working hard to remove the cloak of secrecy that hides the ways special interest money makes its way into a government that should be serving the people of Maine, not influential out-of-state corporate interests.