Latest call to rein in how Maine PAC money can be spent fizzles

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s single-digit cold but campaign season is heating up and so is the debate about campaign finances.

On Thursday, Sen. Justin Chenette proposed tightening what he sees as loopholes in the system. Now, legislative leaders who run political action committees can use money from the PACs for personal benefit. Chenette, a Saco Democrat, pitched his proposal — “An Act to Close Loopholes in Election Laws and Ban the Use of Leadership Political Action Committees for Personal Profit” — to the Legislative Council, which met to consider after-deadline bill requests for consideration when the Legislature returns in January.

“This is about strengthening ethics and government accountability and I think it’s worth a public hearing,” Chenette said to the 10-member panel.

The situation Chenette describes is not unheard of. Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, was fined $9,000 in August for late campaign finance filings after the Maine Ethics Commission found he had commingled business funds with money from his PAC, Respect Maine. In 2016, then-Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, paid a $500 fine after the commission found that she didn’t report using an email list she developed to raise money for her Maine Senate primary run. In 2014, Then-Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, was found to have routed more than half of the haul by his leadership committee to himself and family members. Tuttle went on to lose his next election after 28 years in the Legislature.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau pushed back on Chenette’s proposal. Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican, has a leadership PAC, but hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. He said if the Legislature is going to look into PAC spending, it should also investigate how funds from Maine’s taxpayer-funded Clean Election system are being used, particularly in the area of advertising. He suggested that some of that money is being funneled to businesses owned by sitting lawmakers. “If we’re going to take on the ethics debate, it should be a broad debate,” Thibodeau said.

Chenette said that’s outside the scope of his bill. The Democrat is willing to debate the clean elections system but said that proposal belongs in its own bill, not his. The fate of Chenette’s bill remains in flux. The council voted 9-1 to table it.

But Thibodeau wasn’t done. He suggested that the council draft a letter to the Maine Ethics Commission, asking them to study reporting requirements across all campaign finance sources and report back to the Legislature with recommendations. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called that kind of request from the council “very unusual” and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Thibodeau could use his position to write his own letter. Thibodeau’s motion to send the letter was defeated, 7-3.

“It is very important to acknowledge that the reason that we’re talking about this particular issue today is that there have been numerous legislators in the last four years who have taken advantage of having a PAC for personal benefit,” Gideon said. “It’s an important issue.”

This is an old debate renewed. There has been disagreement about the clean elections system since it was implemented in 1996. Though it’s widely used by both major political parties in Maine, many Republicans oppose the use of taxpayer money in campaigns. There are attempts to change the system virtually every legislative session and in recent years, the funding has been an issue and it is now as we head into next year’s election. The fund pays gubernatorial candidates up to $1 million for a primary and $2 million for a general election. It has around $4.5 million in it now and at least eight 2018 gubernatorial candidates are vying to use the funds. The issue of Chenette’s bill and Thibodeau’s letter will be decided later, likely when the Legislature returns.

Congress’ next spending bill may not have what Collins wants

Congress is poised to pass another stopgap government funding bill and Republicans say it won’t have changes demanded by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Talking Points Memo on Thursday detailed Republicans’ plan to fund the government through Jan. 19 and it won’t include two health care bills that Collins, a Maine Republican, wants passed to offset impacts on consumers’ health insurance premiums from repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate in the Republican tax bill.

That casts doubt on a promise made to Collins that the bills will pass by year’s end. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has promised Collins that those bills would pass by year’s end. They have been a condition of her tax vote. But the tax bill — which Collins thinks will have three of her amendments in it — is up for a Tuesday vote, so a yes vote may be a leap of faith. Talking Points Memo said she “appeared irritated” at Thursday questions on that, but that the Senate could pass a spending bill with them in it. Of course, the House would have to approve it.

“You know, I’m really tired of the cynicism of the press,” she told TPM with a tight smile. “Why don’t we wait and see what happens?”

Reading list

  • A independent review released Thursday urged Maine to overhaul its juvenile justice system, citing “dangerous and harmful conditions” at a South Portland facility. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy said that low staffing levels and a high population of teens with mental illnesses at Long Creek Development Center have created the conditions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine urged the state to close Long Creek on Thursday.
  • Two addiction experts panned recommendations from a Maine legislative task force on solving the opioid crisis. One called them “the same recommendations that have been made multiple times before” and said they didn’t go far enough. The task force released their recommendations on Tuesday, but they mostly expand on existing programs. One addiction counselor said the state needs to make an overdose-reversing drug more available, create more residential detox beds and expand Medicaid.
  • A Democratic lawmaker’s bid to get the Maine Legislature to call neo-Nazis terrorists stalled on Thursday. Also in the Legislative Council, a bill from Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, to get a resolution condemning neo-Nazis stalled after Republican leaders balked at voting on it. Thibodeau said Republicans wanted more time to review the proposed language and “to find something that we can all agree on.”

We have all these independents. Now where are we going to put them?

The number of sitting lawmakers who don’t associate with a major political party is growing in the Maine House of Representatives, which now has six independents and a Green Independent. In the past few months, three Democrats and a Republican have left their parties.

Aside from the political implications, there’s a question of where to put them and their staff of one, according to Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council, who brought the issue to the board on Thursday. He suggested putting them in the Cross Building, which is attached to the State House and which he called “prime legislative space.”

Republicans and Democrats on the council, who have most of the office space surrounding the House and Senate chambers, agreed that the adjacent building is a suitable location for the independents and the Green.

All this is a grand opportunity for some Huey Lewis. Here’s the new Cross crew’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

The Daily Brief will be a little less daily through the end of 2017, since we’re going to be taking some odd vacation time. We’ll publish it on Tuesdays and Thursdays until Jan. 2, when we’ll return to the regular schedule.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.