Maine Election Law Ends Up Costing Taxpayers

Money is still flowing into campaign coffers of candidates who have pledged to abide by Maine's Clean Election Act, a measure enacted in 2000 that aimed to stem the flow of campaign cash from special interest groups.

Candidates who have pledged to run "clean" — receive public campaign funds in exchange for agreeing not to accept individual contributions — are still getting money from lobbyists, but now mostly through political action committees who use it to purchase "issue ads" on television.

"We've got this big pile of money out there, looking for a home," said William Hain, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which administers the $9 million fund.

A special election for a Portland-area Senate seat is the latest example. Of the five candidates in the race, both the Democrat and the Republican ran clean, as did one independent. The state dispensed nearly $123,000 to the clean candidates, though roughly a quarter of that went unspent and will have to be returned.

At the same time, more than $62,000 in soft money went into the campaign, not counting the issue ads, which do not have to be reported.

Democrat Michael Brennan was conditionally seated as the winner after outpolling Republican Sally Vamvakias by 11 votes in a recount, but a Senate panel was reviewing some disputed ballots.

The law ended up costing taxpayers more than $11 per vote in the Senate race. Critics predict that the cost will get even higher as more candidates decide to run clean.

Maine's Clean Election Act was passed by voters in 1996 as a means of controlling skyrocketing campaign spending. The law went into effect in 2000. Arizona and Massachusetts have enacted similar laws, though both are experiencing legal battles related to the measures.

During to the 2000 legislative elections, almost half the members of the Senate and a quarter of those in the House participated in clean campaigns. Overall spending on legislative races went down by 18 percent, while individual donations dropped 50 percent, said Doug Klopp of the Maine Citizens' Leadership Fund, citing a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Democratic state Sen. John Martin supported the law and was even going to run as a clean candidate this November until he saw what happened in Portland. Asked about the law's effect on campaign spending, Martin said, "It now appears that it's made it worse."

Klopp said the law is at least reducing the role of money in politics. So did Micah Sifry of the group Public Campaign, an advocate for campaign finance reform. He said the election actually highlighted the law's positive effects, for instance the fact that five contestants ran, symptomatic of increased competition. Turnout also appeared to be unusually high, Sifry said.

Arizona voters approved a clean elections system in 1998 and it was first used in 2000. But it is under legal attack as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. In Massachusetts, voters approved a similar law in 1998, but a legal battle is under way over the Legislature's refusal to release the necessary money.

On Capitol Hill this week, Congress sent President Bush the McCain-Feingold bill that bans soft money contributions and restricts the broadcasting of issue ads.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.