Setbacks in Money in Politics

Last year saw major setbacks in the fight to keep corporate money out of Maine politics. The Republican controlled legislature, in the face of Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United, chose to gut Maine’s Clean Elections laws rather than reform them. Consequently, during the election, Maine saw record spending from large outside groups on both state and federal races.

With the new year and a new legislature comes a renewed push by MPA and groups like Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE), of which MPA is a member, to make sure Maine’s Clean Election system works and is protected from attacks by the LePage administration and by outside big-money groups funded by wealthy donors like the Koch brothers.

Maine is one of only a handful of states that created a progressive clean elections system for candidates to use public funds to campaign for election, allowing candidates to remain independent from large political contributions by individuals and corporations. A cornerstone of Maine’s Clean Election system was the triggered matching funds component. If a publicly funded candidate was outspent by privately-funded opponents or independent expenditure groups, matching funds were triggered to provide a level playing field and provide voters in hotly contested races an opportunity to hear both sides. However, a ruling issued by the US Supreme Court found matching funds “chilled” the speech of privately funded candidates. Now, without a leveling of the playing field, a publicly-funded candidate could potentially be overwhelmed by privately-funded candidates and special interest money.

The Republican-controlled Legislature opposed legislation repairing the system in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and opted to do nothing. During the election, Maine saw a huge influx of private contributions from corporations like insurance company Anthem, and groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, who do not disclose their contributors. The campaign of independent Senator Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth was one example of the shortcomings of the now-broken Clean Elections system. As a Clean Elections candidate, Sen. Woodbury was only provided one lump sum of public money for his campaign. His opponent, a businessman who ran privately and received a great deal of outside money, was able to outspend Woodbury 3 to 1 during the campaign. Though the Senator won by a tight margin, it highlights the need to improve Maine’s Clean Election system in the face of increasing outside influence.

Unfortunately, the assault against Maine’s Clean Election system is still underway. Governor LePage, in the most recent budget plan, has proposed cutting $4 million in public funds from the program. This cut would essentially gut the program by cutting off funds for candidates who want to run clean in the 2014 election. Members of MPA joined a rally in Augusta in January calling for the legislature to defend Maine’s Clean Election system and prevent these cuts from taking place.

The rally in Augusta also brought attention to an overarching problem with money in politics – the Citizens United ruling and the unfortunate idea of corporate personhood. In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people and entitled to make unlimited contributions to support candidates. This kind of unfettered campaign spending has made its way from the national level down to local legislative races. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections have been working to build support in Maine for a proposed 28th amendment that would remove the personhood status from corporations and nullify the court’s ruling. MCCE has already encouraged more than 25 towns to pass local resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment. Currently there are 11 states that have passed resolutions calling on congress to pass an amendment. There are strong hopes that Maine can become the 12th state to do so.