Maine's Public Campaign Funding Needs Tougher Standards


From its second experience with public financing for gubernatorial races this year, Maine can conclude two things: All that money attracts a lot of candidates, including many with almost no chance of winning, and campaigns that game the system likely will be even more present next time. The Maine Ethics Commission staff has been reviewing the standards for qualifying for public funding. It should prepare Maine for challenges likely to appear in 2010, during the next race for governor.

One of those challenges is to determine how difficult Maine should make qualifying for the public funding, which this year reached about $1 million per candidate. Qualifying standards that are too low ensure that candidates with even fair organization will be able to qualify, though the candidate might barely be a factor in the race. But set the standards too high and a little-known candidate who nevertheless eventually could attract many votes would be excluded.

A possible recommendation from the commission staff would require candidates to collect startup money, limited to, say, $100 per in-state contributor and totaling $10,000 or $15,000 to demonstrate interest in a candidate. Candidates currently have the option of receiving startup money, up to $50,000, from either in or out of state. The in-state provision could be a measure of electability, though it is an imperfect one ? the time for these candidates to earn the trust of voters is during the campaign, not before it begins.

The staff was also considering raising the number of $5 qualifying contributions from 2,500 to 3,000, but may be superseded by lawmakers, who are thinking similarly. Tougher standards, from whatever source, will be needed in 2010 if for no other reason than that the four candidates who qualified for public money and two others who came very close in 2006 established a "how-to" guide for candidates in the next election. Without change, many more candidates with little chance of being elected would qualify.

Another certainty is that third-party advertising ? amply evident from the Maine Democratic Party ads for Gov. John Baldacci and the Republican Governors Association supporting the campaign of state Sen. Chandler Woodcock ? will run around and over unimproved public-funding rules in the next campaign, as they nearly did this time. Commission staff is considering a plan that would increase the end-of-campaign reporting time from 21 to 60 days, expanding the automatic trigger for matching money, but it?s worth noting that the Democratic Party sank Sen. Woodcock?s campaign by early September.

The good news is that Maine has several years to improve its public-funding system, which is still quite young, and it has lawmakers who recognize the shortcomings in the current rules. The staff recommendations are a good start to the discussion, but a lot more debate, especially from past candidates, is needed before the state gets the system right.

See the article on Bangor Daily News website

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