- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 17, 2018

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Several candidates say the Maine governor’s latest push to hold up more than $1 million in budgeted public campaign funding “flies in the face of common sense” and legal precedent.

An advocacy group, seven candidates and four contributors to Maine’s so-called “clean election” fund argued in a legal brief filed Monday that the governor is reducing political speech that will decide this November’s election. The lawsuit against Republican Gov. Paul LePage and finance chief Alec Porteous asks courts to prevent the governor from interfering with disbursement of the money, with oral arguments possible July 24.

“Here, the public interest undoubtedly favors faithful execution of the laws, and not the arbitrary and capricious whims of an executive who refuses to even give an explanation for his unlawful decision to freeze the existing funds already appropriated to the Clean Election funding,” reads the brief filed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

LePage’s lawyer is defending the governor’s refusal to sign financial orders to release money due to more than 120 legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful through June. The governor’s move left Maine’s ethics commission able to pay out only 26 percent of the $1.4 million it owed candidates for that period.

The governor’s “apparent contention that the 26 percent of funding due them is enough flies in the face of both common sense and the Supreme Court’s pronouncements in Buckley and its progeny,” reads the brief, which refers to Supreme Court decisions on free-speech issues.

Voters in 1996 approved the nation’s first program to fully fund candidates, and lawmakers have funded it for two decades. Walter Riseman, an Independent running for state House, said the funding shortfall will “severely diminish” his fight against a privately funded competitor he narrowly lost to in 2016.

“We are confident the court will uphold the law and protect the program twice enacted by the voters,” said John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

LePage and Porteous’s lawyer argued Friday that courts can’t decide whether a governor should sign a financial order. State law doesn’t require the governor to justify his approval or denial of a financial order, argued lawyer Patrick Strawbridge, who cast doubt on claims that the governor’s actions have already harmed candidates.

“But not a single one of the declarants asserts that he or she is currently unable to fund campaign expenditures or to effectively communicate with voters,” reads the Friday filing. “That omission is unsurprising given that these candidates each just received thousands of dollars of public funds from the (Maine Clean Elections Act) program for their campaigns.”

Strawbridge said publicly funded candidates can simply resort to private fundraising.

However, state law says such candidates can do so only after Maine’s public campaign funds - which total $4.6 million currently - run out. So far this year, publicly financed candidates have collected at least 45,000 qualifying contributions of $5 from Mainers.

Maine can’t disperse public funding due to more than 200 candidates after July 1 because lawmakers haven’t fixed an error in Maine’s budget. Lawmakers have failed to fix the typo or negotiate a compromise.

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