- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine lawmakers returned Tuesday ready for a fifth special session day still at stalemate over $3 million in money budgeted last year for more than 200 publicly financed legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful.

The impasse over public campaign funds is holding up a tax code reform deal as lawmakers also face decisions on bonds, medical marijuana and the future of the state’s high school diploma system. Taxpayers pay roughly $40,000 for each special session day, and will also return in coming weeks to deal with Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s expected vetoes.

Some Democrats, Republicans and independent lawmakers on Tuesday called on House Republicans to support releasing the money by fixing a drafting error in the $7.1 billion, two-year budget passed last summer. Lawmakers intended to bump up the annual transfer of $3 million to Maine’s public campaign fund from next January to this June to make sure Maine had enough money for this year’s election.

But the drafting error prevents Maine Ethics Commission from handing out the money after July 1. Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson, who qualified to receive public campaign funds, said lawmakers are prepared to go to court to get the money promised to candidates.

“They are essentially rigging the system,” Jackson said, warning of “bought and sold politicians.”

A minority block of House Republicans ideologically opposed to publicly financed candidates have blocked a proposed fix so far. State data show 40 of 138 Republicans running for the House this year are using public campaign funds, while three-quarters of Democratic House candidates are using such funds.

“House Republicans who traditionally have not been supportive of clean elections are not seeing it as a spending priority,” said Republican House Leader Ken Fredette.

House GOP Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake has proposed fixing the drafting error while also withdrawing $3 million from the fund and returning it in January. The block of House Republicans voted against Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini’s amendment that would also fix the error while withdrawing $1 million from public campaign funds and returning it in January.

Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said Tuesday that Maine would run out of money for publicly financed candidates by August if lawmakers withdraw $3 million.

“We might be able to do a little more than $1 million,” Wayne said last week, declining to name a specific figure.

The fund has a $5.2 million balance as of July 1 that would drop to $2.2 million under Timberlake’s proposal, according to Wayne. By August, the fund would run out of money and publicly financed candidates would have to raise traditional campaign contributions.

Wayne said while recent gubernatorial campaigns have cost between $2 million and $3 million, independent gubernatorial candidate and State Treasurer Terry Hayes has only received $600,000 so far in public funds.

Fredette and Timberlake said lawmakers lack a consistent answer to just how much money is needed.

“If it runs out in August, those candidates will have to raise traditional just like the rest of us do,” Timberlake said.

Maine voters in 1996 passed the state’s then-first-of-its-kind system for public financing of statewide candidates. Qualifying candidates must collect a minimum number of at least $5 donations, and the state annually transfers $3 million in tax revenues each year to the fund.

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