December 12, 2019

State campaign reform

The increased cost of campaigning in the last decade slowly is changing the tenor of Maine politics to the detriment of its residents. It is not too late to reverse this trend, but the pressure must come from outside the system that depends on campaign dollars.

Higher costs for campaigns hurt Maine in several ways. They are a distraction for politicians, who are forced to spend increasing amounts of time wondering where their next campaign funds will come from. Given the legislative leaders’ packed schedules, big donors are likely to be given more of a hearing than the typical citizen. Most importantly, the $24,000 average cost required in 1994 to win a seat in the state Senate will drive away people who could serve ably, but are put off by the necessity to raise that much money.

The result gives a tremendous advantage to the state’s rich. Gov. Angus King has demonstrated many fine qualities, but he would not be displaying them in the governor’s office today if he had not given more than $1 million to his campaign. In the Legislature, the spending record that certainly will stand for a few more years was set in 1992 by Sen. Alton “Chuck” Cianchette of Newport. He spent $133,000 to get elected to a job that pays about $9,000 a year.

Between 1984 and 1992, campaign costs for the state Senate increased from an average of $5,560 to $16,955. The money comes largely from private contributors: legislative leaders got 77 percent of their money in donations over $100; gubernatorial candidates got about the same percentage of their funds in $500 chunks, according to the Money and Politics Project, an undertaking of the nonprofit Maine Citizen Leadership Fund.

The project’s leaders are trying to stir up grass-roots enthusiasm for campaign finance reform by introducing nonbinding resolutions at town meetings. That’s a good idea, although the project would be helped by a specific recommendations for change, rather than the more general goals it currently is circulating. It aims to reduce the influence of large donors, give challengers a greater chance, ensure election and campaign laws are enforced and restore public confidence in government, among other things.

Maine needs guidance in devising a grass-roots cure to rising campaign costs. Of the Legislature’s dozen reform proposals this year, some are serious, some are merely symbolic, but the chances are remote of any of them passing without a push from the public.

The most direct way for Mainers to be ensured a voice in Augusta is to keep campaign costs low. Money and Politics has offered a useful way of speaking out.

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