Judge: State must release over $1 million in campaign funds
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A judge on Thursday ordered Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to release more than $1 million in public campaign funding that the Republican governor held up by refusing to sign routine financial orders.
The state has three days to release the funds, said Superior Court Justice William Stokes in the Thursday opinion. Seven candidates in the Maine Clean Election Act program sued claiming the governor was jeopardizing political speech in an election season by refusing to release over $1 million in overdue public campaign funds due through June to more than 120 legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful.
Stokes said that the state should distribute already budgeted public campaign funds to qualifying candidates, even if the governor hasn’t signed a financial order. More than 45,000 voters this year have made $5 contributions needed for 2018 candidates to qualify for such funds.
But, the judge said the candidates didn’t prove that LePage administration’s actions violated the state’s constitution.
“It does not necessarily follow that the failure to fully comply with the requirements of the (Maine Clean Elections Act) regarding the distribution of funds to qualified candidates rises to the level of a constitutional violation,” Stokes said.
Attorneys for LePage argued he has discretion to sign financial orders, and the courts shouldn’t force him to.
The judge has said he expects an appeal of his decision, regardless of his ruling. “We’ll be there every step of the way to make sure the law is upheld,” said John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the administration is considering its options.
“We appreciate that the court recognized that it lacks the authority to order the Governor to sign financial orders and rejected the bulk of their claims,” Rabinowitz said in an email.
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 Stokes found that public campaign funds are “unique” under Maine law, and that no financial order is required to release such funds due to candidates.
“The mandatory nature of the distribution of funds to qualified candidates also supports the conclusion that the enactors of the (Maine Clean Elections Act) intended to remove the Legislature and the governor from the actual distribution of such funds,” he wrote.
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.