Last week Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) announced its plan to put a new referendum on the ballot next year that would provide more public funding for Clean Elections candidates, require interest groups spending money on campaigns to disclose their donors, and increase penalties for election-law violations.

"Today is about Maine citizens taking the lead," said MCCE's board president, Ann Luther, in a statement. "The Clean Elections Initiative builds on the success of the past and strengthens Clean Elections for the future. This is an effort for those who believe that everyone should be represented in a democracy, not just the wealthy; for those who believe the power belongs in the hands of everyday people; and for those who believe that all of us deserve to have elected representatives who are accountable to us."

Passed in 1996 by citizen initiative (with a vote of 320,755 to 250,185), the Maine Clean Election Act is a voluntary public financing program for candidates running for state representative, state senator and governor. In exchange for public funds, Clean Elections candidates are only allowed to take a very limited amount of private money. The program is funded by individual contributions from tax returns and state General Fund dollars. Supporters say that Clean Elections limit the corrupting influence of money in politics. Opponents, including Gov. Paul LePage, have called it "welfare for politicians" and say limiting private money in campaigns curbs "free speech." A number of Supreme Court decisions, including the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, have allowed for unlimited "independent expenditures," ushering in the notorious SuperPACs, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2012 campaign. A 2011 decision struck down the matching-funds provision in Maine's Clean Election Act, which allowed Clean Election candidates in competitive races to receive additional public money to respond to negative campaigning from outside groups. Without the matching funds, Clean Election supporters say candidates are left vulnerable to attacks from big moneyed interests.

The new citizen initiative includes a replacement for the matching-funds provision that would be compliant with the Court's ruling by simply allowing candidates in competitive districts to collect more individual $5 contributions from registered voters that would be matched with additional public funds. The initiative would also require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their top three donors in political advertisements. However, as MCCE spokesman B.J. McCollister admitted, the proposed law still wouldn't require tax-exempt nonprofit groups like 501(c)4s (known as "social welfare organizations") to reveal their donors when spending money in Maine elections. Funneling political expenditures through various non-profits and PACs is known in campaign finance circles as "cleaning the fingerprints off," and it's a practice that has doubled since 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Another provision in MCCE's initiative would increase fines for individuals and groups breaking campaign finance laws. "Right now the current structure is referred to as laughable and the 'cost of doing business,' so this would increase the potential fine to 100 percent of the expenditure," said McCollister.

For instance, when the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee dumped $400,000 in last-minute negative ads directed at five Democratic state senate candidates, although the group filed its expenditure two days late and left the targeted candidates little time to respond, the Maine Ethics Commission fined the group $26,000. Critics considered this penalty minuscule compared to the $29.5 million the group raised in 2010.

Finally, the MCCE proposal would require newly elected governors to disclose the names of donors who contribute money for the transition expenses of new governors, which is a process that Clean Elections supporters say is open to potential corruption.

"This is particularly important because before the election, you're hedging your bets on who the winner will be, but after the election you know who won and that money is not disclosed right now," said McCollister.

To pay for the whole package, which would cost about $6 million over two years, the proposed law would direct the Legislature to find the money by closing corporate tax loopholes identified by the non-partisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA).

In 2008, approximately 80 percent of qualifying candidates used the Clean Elections system. However, according to MCCE, this year only 52 percent of candidates are using the program, which is the lowest rate since Maine's Clean Election Act took effect in 2002. For the first time, there are no gubernatorial candidates using public funds. According to MCCE, out-of-state interests have already raised over $800,000 to influence this year's election, compared to a total of $1 million that came from outside Maine in 2010.

"It's kind of painting a picture of what the future of Maine might look like if we don't have a strong Clean Elections program," said McCollister.

The group hopes to collect 70,000 signatures in the next eight months and has already begun circulating petitions.