It’s time to debunk five mistaken arguments against Question 1

Credit: George Danby l BDN

Credit: George Danby l BDN

This year Maine’s biggest statewide vote involves Question 1, a referendum that would increase accountability and transparency for campaign donations, as it would also restore public financing and fund it by closing corporate tax breaks.

Without a robust system of Clean Elections, candidates would be more dependent on big-pocket donors

A recent study of judicial elections found that, after public financing was creating in North Carolina, judges that participated in the program became less favorable toward “attorney donors” than they were when those donors gave judicial candidates money. In Maine, a 2010 study found that, while Clean Elections didn’t increase the competitiveness of legislative elections, “candidates have relied on substantially less in private contributions and the financial disparity between candidates has diminished significantly.”

And while there are varied philosophical perspectives that give rise to honest differences of opinion about Question 1 — which I and many others see as preserving and increasing the voice of ordinary Mainers in a campaign system all too often swamped by big donors — some arguments propagate anything from misperceptions to flat out incorrect information.

1. Some, sympathetic to the need to change our elite-oriented campaign finance system, presume that if you don’t overturn the Citizens United decision, it’s not worth making any improvements.

But that same logic doesn’t apply in any other situation in life. When we want to get healthier, we don’t say it’s not worth doing anything unless we jump into exercising seven days a week for hours a day and never eating anything even a little unhealthy.

Moreover, overturning the decision would be very, very difficult. Amending the Constitution requires support from 2/3 of the U.S. House plus 2/3 of the U.S. Senate plus ¾ of state legislatures.

Whatever becomes of such an effort, we can and should act in ways that further a more democratic campaign finance system right now. Voting against Question 1 would deliver the message nationally that people don’t care about campaign spending.

2. The “welfare for politicians” claim seeks to plant the idea that politicians just get checks handed over them to do nothing, and ignores the communications with constituents required to get any money in the first place.

Before qualifying for Clean Elections funds, candidates have to go out and raise numerous $5 donations. To get any additional public funds, another round of fundraising in the same $5 amount is required.

And Clean Elections money can only be used for approved campaign expenditures, not personal expenses, more so than for private campaign funds.

By the way, Clean Elections campaigns are subject to audit by the Ethics Commission. Privately financed campaigns are not routinely audited.

Candidates have to work to get funds and would have to work to comply with audits.

3. Others overlook the source of the funds candidates could receive and claim that taxes will go up if this passes. This referendum will not raise individuals’ taxes.

The referendum is very clear that funds would come from closing unneeded corporate tax breaks, not income taxes.

Those cuts aren’t for just one year. By the way, there is certainly waste in “tax expenditures,” in that the funds spent for business tax breaks don’t always produce economic growth.

Thus Question 1 would lead to a close look at and analysis of all business tax breaks to weed out the ones that don’t work and just cost money.

Keep in mind the budgeted cost of $3 million a year is less than one-tenth of what Cate Street received in corporate welfare. As Whit Richardson wrote, “Maine’s taxpayers provided the equity investors, who faced little risk, with a $7.8 million profit.” ‘[D]espite the fact that the mill closed and went bankrupt,” as of April 2015, the state still owed the investors $16 million.

4. Arguments about how much could be spent are typically wrong because they neglect the fact that Question 1 restores maximum funding to what it was under the original law – before the Supreme Court eliminated matching funds — and that candidates don’t automatically qualify for multiple rounds of financing.

Because matching funds require effort from candidates, not all of them will have support from their constituents to qualify for them.

The candidates who do may need a way to run a viable campaign without depending on PACs or wealthy donors.

5. The claim that Question 1 isn’t a bipartisan referendum or that out-of-state Democrats are pushing their agenda on Maine ignores how this referendum was created by Mainers and used by candidates across the political spectrum.

Mainers wrote this law. The Maine based campaign recruited over 1,000 Maine volunteers to work on this campaign, gathered the signatures to put this on the ballot and has over 2,500 unique Maine donors.

Republicans, Democrats and Independent candidates have used the funds, including some who now oppose the law.

Other arguments against Question 1 don’t engage what the referendum would do  –  limiting the voice of big donors and corporations so that ordinary people are heard.

Accountability and transparency would be increased, including for gubernatorial transition committees, which have not been open to scrutiny in Maine.

Question 1 is not about reducing the number of campaign signs and ads – and there is no constitutional way to do that.

It’s about the relationship candidates and elected officials have with ordinary voters.

As Republican state Senator Roger Katz said:

Maine should pride itself on the state of our democracy and the progress we’ve made, but we should use this as an opportunity to act and do more.

Any effort to effectively address the health of democracy on the state level and across the country must adequately tackle these issues. It’s critical that Maine live up to the American ideal, the Maine ideal, of liberty and justice for all.

Maine has led the way before and it can again.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.