Ethics Commission Seeks Stronger Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws

Sep 25, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has witnessed the growing influence of out-of-state money in its election in recent years, and has adopted disclosure laws aimed at shining a light on where that money is coming from.

But some, including staff analysts with the state Ethics Commission, say those laws don't go far enough in letting voters know exactly who is writing the checks.

It's not that large, out-of-state political action committees and ballot question groups aren't complying with Maine campaign finance disclosure laws. it's just that those laws fall short.

"We're saying that Maine law should be improved to give voters more information about where the political money is coming from," says Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.

To illustrate his point, Wayne points to the Nov. 2014 election, in which five national groups of varying partisan stripes spent more than $13 million to influence voters in the gubernatorial race and the bear hunting referendum.

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund contributed more than $2 million in campaigns in favor of the bear hunting question, but under Maine law, there is no requirement to disclose who gave those organizations money.

The same is true for the Republican Governors Association, which spent more than $5 million, and its Democratic counterpart, which delivered just under $3 million.

This would change under proposed law revisions suggested by Wayne's staff, which call for more disclosure.

"I think what we're trying to do as staff is to raise a flag and say 'Commissioners, Legislature, the status quo is not working as well as you might think in terms of informing Maine voters.'" he says. "We've got a problem, here's one proposed solution, but like any proposed policy, it really needs to be examined from different points of view and get perfected."

The effort has been informed by the commission's legal battles seeking to force the National Organization for Marriage to disclose the names of individuals who contributed the $2 million used to overturn Maine's same-sex marriage law in 2009.

The commission ultimately prevailed in the courts and NOM eventually disclosed its contributors: A group of about half a dozen people, one of whom had contributed nearly $1.3 million.

"I think the ethics commission is putting forth a proposal that Maine people want, we deserve and want disclosure," says Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the president of Mainers for Accountable Elections. "We need to know who's behind political spending in order for us to make up our minds on important policy debates."

Mainers for Accountable Elections is a coalition supporting Question 1 this November that Bossie says is crafted to restore and strengthen Maine's clean elections system.

While Democrats have generally been more supportive of stronger campaign finance disclosure laws than Republicans in Maine, Bossie says the issue cuts across party lines.

"This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue," Bossie says. "It's an issue of making sure that we have a government that truly works for everyday people."

But Pastor Bob Emrich of Plymouth says Maine's existing campaign finance laws already provide an adequate level of disclosure.

Emrich led the 2009 fight against gay marriage and the PAC that accepted the $2 million from the National Organization for Marriage.

He says that when the votes were counted on that issue, it didn't really matter who paid for the advertising. And Emrich says stricter disclosure laws would have a chilling effect on future fundraising efforts by all Maine groups.

"It's a diversion away from the real issue, it's a diversion away from looking at the facts, looking at the information that's being presented," Emrich says. "To say who is funding it contributes to the nasty kind of campaigns that we're so used to these days. People should be focusing on the issue itself — not who supports or who doesn't support the issue."

The ethics commission is scheduled to review the staff recommendations at its Oct. 1st meeting.