By guest blogger Val Philbrick
Everyone is in favor of transparency in government and elections, but the gap between theory and practice is often very large. Question 1 is an attempt to close that gap, make a step in the right direction, and find out who pays for what. The proposed initiative on the November 3 ballot would strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act, improve disclosure, and make other changes to the campaign finance laws. The campaign in support of the proposed initiative is being led by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
The measure reads as follows: Do you want to change Maine law to allow publicly financed state candidates to qualify for additional funds under certain limits and rules in the Maine Clean Election Act; to improve the disclosure of who pays for political ads; and to increase penalties for violations of campaign finance law?
During the campaign for the bear referendum of 2014, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) located in Washington, D.C., was labeled as an out-of-state special interest group that manipulated a large number of unsuspecting Mainers into voting for the referendum. While it was reported in the news media that the spending for the campaign on both sides of the referendum was approximately equal; not much mention was made of the national and local hunting and sporting groups that campaigned against the referendum. It’s time to set the record straight.
According to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices at mainecampaignfinance.com, current law allows the public to view the campaign finance and lobbyist data in the State of Maine as “political candidates, political action committees, ballot question committees, and political party committees are required to file reports with the Commission disclosing their financial activity to influence elections. Lobbyists registered in Maine are required to file monthly reports of their lobbying activities in Maine.”
The Commission reports that groups, such as the National Rifle Association of America, the NRA Political Victory Fund, and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, located in Fairfax, VA; the U.S. Sportmen’s Alliance out of Columbus, Ohio, and local groups such as the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, the Maine Trappers Association, and the Maine Professional Guides Association spent thousands of dollars every month lobbying Maine state legislators on the bear referendum and other gun-related and hunting issues in 2014. Unfortunately, under current law, there is no way to tell exactly what the lobbyists spend their money on, including print ads and television commercials, but Question 1 would change all that.
What is interesting to note is that the HSUS did not have anything to gain financially from the millions of dollars that they spent trying to influence the voters in this state other than the prevention of cruelty to animals, but the NRA, the gun manufacturers, the Maine Department of Inland Wildlife and Fisheries, and the local and national hunting and sporting groups all stood to benefit financially, such as from the sale of guns and ammunition, hunting licenses, outfitters and guiding services, and the sale of outdoor sporting and hunting gear.
Mainers for Accountable Elections at accountableelections.org, points out that “Question 1 will increase transparency and disclosure by requiring special interest groups to list their top three donors on all political ads so that voters know right away who is trying to influence their vote; increase accountability by toughening penalties and fines for candidates and special interest groups that break our campaign finance laws so that politicians are accountable to the people; and encourage strict spending and contribution limits by strengthening Maine’s Clean Election system so that candidates are not reliant on special interests and big money donors.”
According to ballotpedia.org, “The initiative, upon voter approval this November 3, would strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act. The measure would increase funding from $2 million to $3 million for the Maine Clean Election Fund. The additional funding would come from eliminating $6 million in ‘low-performing, unaccountable’ corporate tax exemptions, deductions or credits ‘with little or no demonstrated economic development effect.’ Maine currently exempts about $1 billion per year through tax breaks for businesses.”
Ballotpedia.org also points that “The initiative would increase penalties for violating campaign finance disclosure rules. Finances reported late would be penalized at 100 percent, rather than the current $5,000. Penalties and sanctions would be doubled for violations when they occur within 24 days before an election and tripled when violations occur within 14 days. Advertisements and communications would be required to disclose the campaign’s top three funders. The measure would also allow candidates to qualify for supplemental funds and require disclosures regarding gubernatorial inaugurations and transitions.”
Mainers for Accountable Elections reported on October 1, that “U.S. Senators George Mitchell and Angus King today endorsed Question 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot, which will reform Maine’s campaign finance system and put the control of elections where it belongs – in the hands of the people.”
A poll conducted by the Portland Press Herald on September 25 showed that people support Question 1 by a majority of 96 to 4 percent. The passage of Question 1 would go a long way towards exposing the true identities of the people behind attack ads and those in-state and out-of-state special interest groups that spend millions of dollars to sway elections in Maine. It’s high time we know who pays for what.
–Val Philbrick is a local writer, talk show host, and animal advocate.