Maine's publicly-financed candidates will finally be getting $1 million in campaign funds despite Republican Gov. Paul LePage's attempt to unilaterally block the funding and a last-minute move by his administration that threatened to delay payments to 120 legislative candidates and a gubernatorial hopeful.
The payments - due to candidates in June - were "completely completely processed and candidates should be receiving the payments over the next several days," says Paul Lavin, deputy director of the Maine Ethics Commission, in a brief statement released Tuesday evening.
The funds were released after Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage decided not to appeal a court order instructing him to release the money.
But in a letter to the Maine Ethics Commission, the agency that administers the public campaign program, LePage's finance chief said the administration would comply with the judge's order, but that it would no longer perform its traditional role of disbursing payments to candidates.
The announcement was described by advocates of the public campaign finance law as a retributive move and it also caught the Ethics Commission offguard. In a release sent Tuesday afternoon, Lavin said his agency was neither staff nor authorized to issue checks to qualifying candidates. He also said the bureaucratic move by the administration would further impact a seven-person agency that also enforces Maine election laws.
Meanwhile, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the group that sued LePage when he refused to sign routing financial orders and delayed the June payments, said it was prepared to again take the administration to court.
Robert Howe, an attorney representing the group, said LePage had apparently decided he would not win by appealing the court order so he was instead throwing "sand in the gears " of the program.
Lavin said the LePage administration's decision to immediately halt providing back office support would likely delay payments to some candidates and have longterm consequences on the small agency's daily operations.
"The Commission staff will endeavor to process the payments as quickly as possible. However, as a result of the change in payment procedures, not all payments to candidates will be processed by 5:00 p.m. today," Lavin wrote.
But the LePage administration eventually sent two state workers to the commission to help with processing, and by 5:30 p.m. the processing was complete, Lavin said.
Last week Superior Court Judge William Stokes said the state should release the funds to qualifying candidates, even if the governor hasn’t given his approval.
Howe said LePage's response shows that the governor didn't believe he would win appealing Stokes' order, but that he's found another way to "drag his feet."
In a subsequent statement, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections said it was "satisfied" that the delays were coming to an end.
"Despite some initial foot-dragging, the administration now appears willing to help the Ethics Commission distribute funds on an expedited basis today," said John Brautigam, another attorney with MCCE. "We are satisfied that defendants are on a path to full compliance with the law, to conclude this episode of unnecessary delay and obstruction."
Julie Rabinowitz, the governor's spokesperson, said in a statement that the court order effectively means the Ethics Commission should have "their own accounting process to budget, issue checks, track payments, etc." While those duties were previously part of the finance department, she said the agency is now training the Ethics Commission staff to perform those tasks on their own.
She said the finance agency was making sure the Clean Elections funds get "transferred to the individual accounts today."
Some 45,000 voters have made $5 contributions that allow the 2018 candidates to qualify for the Clean Election program, a landmark public campaign finance law approved by Maine voters in 1999.
LePage has long opposed the program and taken several steps to strip it of its funding. But this year he attempted to block funding by refusing to sign routine financial orders, prompting several qualifying candidates and MCCE to sue his administration.
LePage's attorney argued that the has discretion over financial orders. But last week Superior Court Judge William Stokes said the Clean Election fund is unique under Maine law and that no financial order is needed to release funds to qualifying candidates.
The administrations said that Stokes’ order also means that the finance agency no longer needs to provide backend support to the Maine Ethics Commission or help it process payments to the Clean Elections program that the small agency oversees. Those functions, the administration said, can now be performed by the agency itself.
In his statement, Lavin indicated that the small ethics agency is not currently staffed to perform such duties.
"The Administration’s action will have a serious impact of the Commission’s day-to-day operations and the staff is still assessing the full implications of the Administration’s decision," he said.
The $1.4 million in funding that's been distributed to candidates will not end the political wrangling over Clean Elections funding. Another $4.8 million is in limbo because of a drafting error in the state's two-year budget passed last year. House Republicans, many of whom vocal opponents of the landmark public campaign finance law that voters approved in 1999, have blocked attempts to fix the error.