Cebra From Augusta: Maine Clean Elections are really not so clean after all

Rich Cebra

By Rich Cebra

State Representative (R-Naples)

In 1996, the people of Maine voted to create what has become known as the “Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA)” election funding system.  It allows candidates who collect a certain number of five-dollar checks, depending on the office they are seeking, to have their election campaigns funded by taxpayer dollars.

The story behind it is, that after having recently gone through a couple of scandals in the mid-90s over election activities, the idea was sold to the people of Maine as a way to get “big money” out of the election process. Candidates, who run “clean” or taxpayer funded, cannot accept private campaign contributions, other than raising a modest amount of seed money, and gathering the five-dollar qualifying contribution checks.

From the beginning, the idea was flawed. Candidates who ran “clean” in their personal Districts could also form Political Action Committees (PACs). This allowed the “Clean” candidate to raise unlimited amounts of money from special interest groups who were only too happy to fork over big money to buy access and influence.

Most Maine people were not aware of this flaw in the system, or that it allowed big money to flow into politics as freely as it had prior to the MCEA being passed into law. Over the years, the Maine Legislature has tinkered with the MCEA system, attempting to make it better, but the truth is, nothing thus far has worked.

The MCEA funding system was put in place to get big money from special interest groups out of our election process, and on that count alone, this process has failed miserably. Each election cycle sees more and more special interest groups’ money pouring into races seeking to overwhelm the opposition, and essentially buy an election.

A great example of special interest money flowing into campaigns was the race between Maine House member Amy Volk and Maine Senator Jim Boyle for the Senate District in the Scarborough area in 2014. Boyle was a one-term incumbent and was being challenged by Volk, a two-term member of the Maine House. When the race was over (Volk won) and all the money was tallied, there was over $300,000 spent on the contest. Boyle and his backers poured in more than five times the amount of spending that Volk did.

Keep in mind, this was for a part-time state senate position that pays a little over $10,000 per year. The Volk-Boyle race is not unique. While others may not have reached the level of spending that race attracted, there are countless elections around Maine that bring in absurd amounts of election spending.

For a House race in Maine, in most seats up for election, you can run a very credible and effective campaign for about $5,000. That used to be roughly the money the MCEA funded for a House campaign.

Now, that has all changed. House candidates can get upwards of $15,000 to run their campaigns. House districts are at best around 5,000 voters casting their ballots. This is nothing short of absurd and a complete miss use of taxpayer dollars.

Think about it. In Maine, we are constantly asked as taxpayers to fund the needs of capable people. Often, we sacrifice things for our own family to simply keep the tax bills paid. Now, we are being asked to fund the election dreams of capable adults who could do the fund-raising work themselves and privately fund their campaign.

This year, the Maine House Republicans put the brakes on this maddening waste of your money. After yet another debacle under the leadership of Maine House Speaker Sarah Gideon, an error was found in a rushed bill that prevented the allocating of some of the MCEA money that would have given even more taxpayer money to people running for office.

The Speaker of the Maine House, Sarah Gideon, demanded that we agree to legislatively fix the error. Maine House Republicans held their ground and told the speaker the answer was “No!”

The truth is, we were tired of the Maine Democrats taking taxpayer money for their election campaigns and using it to lie about our voting records. We decided we were not going to give in to Speaker Gideon’s demands and thus far, we have not.

The people of Maine need the whole truth, not just the half-truth told in the media. The MCEA process has been a big fraud hoisted on the people of Maine. Taxpayer funding of elections, that is what it should really be called, has failed to keep big money out of our election process.

The MCEA has really been nothing more than a way to funnel taxpayer money to candidates, while letting big-monied interests run wild. While it has happened on both sides of the aisle, Maine Democrats have turned this process into a political artform.

This is wrong, and it is time someone said so. That is what I am doing here, letting the people of Maine know, once and for all, that it is time to stop allowing big monied interests and capable adult candidates who could raise their own campaign funds from abusing the generosity of the Maine taxpayer. It is time to repeal the Maine Clean Election Act.

Rep. Rich Cebra represents House District 68, which includes the towns of Baldwin, Cornish, Naples, Parsonsfield (part) and Sebago. 

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