AUBURN, Maine (AP) — A judge said Tuesday he hopes to weigh in this month on a lawsuit over Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to hold up more than $1 million in public campaign funding months before the November election.
A Superior Court judge heard arguments Tuesday on a lawsuit filed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, seven candidates and four public campaign contributors seeking the release of the money. The governor’s move left Maine’s ethics commission able to pay out only 26 percent of the $1.4 million it owed candidates through June.
Judge William Stokes questioned whether the governor is truly harming candidates’ constitutionally protected political speech and whether LePage’s budgetary authority trumps Maine’s nearly 20-year-old system of publicly financing candidates. Maine voters in 1996 approved the nation’s first program to fully fund candidates, and lawmakers have funded it for two decades.
“This was enacted by the people,” Stokes said, later adding: “Doesn’t it make sense that you don’t want to have the legislature or governor having the ability to mess around with mandatory distribution to candidates in an election?”
An attorney for LePage said the governor, not a judge, has the discretion to sign a financial order without providing reasoning under Maine law. The governor contends that plaintiffs failed to prove that the hold on some public campaign funds will cause “irreparable harm” to their campaigns.
“This is a subsidy issue,” said LePage attorney Patrick Strawbridge. He said that hypothetically, LePage could still use his budgetary authority under Maine law to prevent a publicly financed competitor from receiving funds.
It’s unclear how the judge will rule. Stokes said he expects any decision he’ll make will be appealed.