LePage releases over $1 million in campaign funds
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration agreed to follow a court order to release Tuesday more than $1 million in public campaign funding the governor held up by refusing to sign routine financial orders, but the governor’s office also said the ethics commission should cut the checks themselves from now on.
A superior court judge ruled on Aug. 2 that the state had three days to release budgeted public funds to qualifying candidates, even though LePage, a Republican, hadn’t given his approval. The LePage administration said Monday it would comply but would no longer allow finance staffers to cut checks for public campaign funds.
By Tuesday evening, LePage’s finance agency relented and helped the ethics commission transfer all the money owed through June to the candidates, according to the ethics commission’s Assistant Director Paul Lavin.
“We are satisfied that defendants are on a path to full compliance with the law, to conclude this episode of unnecessary delay and obstruction,” Maine Citizens for Clean Elections attorney John Brautigam said. “The candidates and the voters can be assured that this important democracy initiative will continue to be in effect through the 2018 election cycle.”
LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz defended the administration’s move by pointing out that the court had only ordered Maine’s finance agency to make the funds available. She said that isn’t the same as actually cutting the checks, and that the agency indeed made the money available.
Seven candidates in the Maine Clean Election program sued because the governor refused to release over $1 million in overdue public campaign funds due through June to more than 120 legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful.
More than 45,000 voters this year have made $5 contributions needed for 2018 candidates to qualify for such funds, according to the state’s ethics commission. The candidates who sued claimed the governor was jeopardizing political speech in an election season.
Attorneys for LePage argued that the governor has discretion to sign financial orders, and that the courts shouldn’t step in.
Superior Court Justice William Stokes said Maine law gives the governor the discretion to sign financial orders needed to allow agencies to shift funds from one account to another.
But, the judge found that public campaign funds are “unique” under Maine law, and that no financial order is required to release such funds due to qualifying candidates.
Now, the LePage administration says the court’s decision means the state finance agency no longer needs to help the Maine Ethics Commission process checks for public campaign funds through what’s known as the Maine Clean Elections Fund. In a late Monday afternoon letter, LePage finance chief Alec Porteous said the court found the fund falls outside Maine’s normal budgetary process.
“Because of the clarification provided by the court, the commission can and should have their own accounting processes to budget and issue checks, track payments,” Rabinowitz said.
The ethics commission’s Assistant Director Paul Lavin said candidates should receive payments over the next several days. The impact of the LePage administration’s move, he said, remains to be seen.
“The administration’s action will have a serious impact of the commission’s day-to-day operations and the staff is still assessing the full implications of the administration’s decision,” Lavin said.
In a separate issue, public funding to candidates after July 1 also remains on hold because lawmakers haven’t fixed an error in Maine’s budget.