For more than a decade, critics have complained of a loophole in Maine’s Clean Election law. Candidates who pay for their campaigns using taxpayers’ funds — and thus avoid accusations of being beholden to special interests — can and do raise thousands of dollars in private donations for their personal political action committees, or “leadership PACs.” The problem isn’t going away, with substantial sums being raised months ahead of State House primaries. From January to March of this year, 11 legislators who ran or are currently running as Clean Election candidates raised a combined $21,860 from lobbyists, corporations and individual supporters, according to disclosures filed April 20 with the state ethics commission. For a sense of scale, each Clean Election House candidate will run their general election campaign on a state payment of $3,937, a state Senate candidate, $18,124.
While prohibited from spending funds raised for their leadership PACs on their own campaigns, candidates are free to dispense them to the campaigns and PACs of their political allies and party. PAC owners can also reimburse themselves for non-campaign travel expenses, and can buy ads for or against candidates in other races, including those between other Clean Election candidates. In theory, funds given to other PACs could also be used as “independent expenditures” to boost the very candidate who initially raised them, or to attack their opponent. “It’s a classic loophole,” says Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College. “If the intention was to clear up the connections between donors and the influence of money, this does violate the spirit of the law.” Leadership PACs controlled by Clean Election candidates also spent $23,924 in the first quarter of 2012, most of it going to state and county party campaign committees or the campaigns of other legislators and would-be legislators.