Money and politics seem to be two words that are not mutually exclusive. With the Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court, money has been amplified by way of political action committees, better known as PACs. While many of the campaign finance reforms that are needed must come from the federal level, there are things we can do in the state that can help take money out of the equation – or at the very least make our officials more accountable to the people rather than their donors.
My bill, LD 410, addresses both the hypocrisy in the Clean Election system, as well as a cap for overall contributions to PACs.
I am not suggesting eliminating PAC fundraising altogether. I am merely suggesting during the entire duration of the campaign period from the time the Clean Elections candidates turn in their qualifying checks all the way through the day of the election, there should not be any PAC involvement. Clean Election candidates profess to be “clean” from special interest money and can then turn around and raise funds for their PACs on the side. This is disingenuous to the voters and a misuse of taxpayer money if allowed to continue.
In too many instances, PAC funds are raised from exactly the same special interest groups that our public funding system was designed to avoid. This program has blatant back-door loopholes that allow individuals to create an entire network of completely legal fraud. Much of it is publicly searchable, if you know what it is you are searching for. Many PACs don’t have the name of the principal officer in their title, thus adding an extra layer of secrecy. The PAC money collected during campaign periods is used as a security blanket for Clean Election candidates who fear being outspent if they just stay with the public dollars they are given. The PAC money can be their knight in shining armor as independent expenditures when their taxpayer-funded supplies grow thin. I am seeking to strengthen Clean Elections by ensuring its core mission of keeping special interest money out of politics is abided by.
Yet, it appears that fundraising was a major priority for at least 34 candidates in the 2010 election cycle who took public tax dollars to run their respective campaigns and, at the same time, were also principal officers or decision makers for their own political action committees, many of which were leadership PACs. Between 2010 and 2011, there were 13 Republicans and 21 Democrats who were Clean candidates in their own right, while raising a combined $978,501 in PAC money. Some key leadership PACs raised about $77,000 in two years, $105,000 in three years, and $118,000 over a four-year span. Imagine if all this money was used to shore up our budget shortfall instead of hoisting political aspirations.
According to the Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, there is no limitation on the amount of money a contributor may give to a PAC, hence why I’m seeking to cap this amount at $350 per a single source. This current unlimited nature of PACs combined with our Clean Elections system is a bad combo. It creates a vicious cycle where candidates raise private money for their PACs, funnel that money to party caucus or committee PACs, which then in turn spends that money throughout multiple races by way of independent expenditures. All the while the lobbying groups donating to these individual PACs get brownie points with that particular legislator to influence policy opinions, votes or to gain access later in the session. These legislators, on both sides of the aisle, also get their gold star by raising a substantial amount of money, somehow showcasing this fiscal feat to their respective caucuses in an attempt to secure leadership positions. And we wonder why the public has an apprehensive view of our political system. Last time I checked, leadership is defined by ability not money. Putting this bill into law would ensure that special interest money does not influence leadership races or make it more difficult to do so. It will send a message that the senate president, speaker of the house and the like cannot and will not be bought.
When candidates double dip by accepting money from two hands at the same time, we are creating generations of dirty politicians and a very negative public perception of the campaign finance process. While the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted 12-1 against my bill, there is a chance for passage in the House, even though past attempts for similar reforms, including by then-Rep. Linda Valentino, have all failed. I hope my colleagues will do what is right over what is politically easy.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for district 134 in Saco. You can get legislative updates about the work out of the 126th Legislature at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/ justinforsaco, and Twitter.com/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco