I have a different take on reforming campaign finance through Question 1

Boy, it sucks coming down on the same side of the fence on an issue as Gov. Paul LePage, but in my defense my take on Question 1 on the November ballot is a little different. And frankly, I don’t necessarily agree with the reasoning opponents or proponents give for their positions.

Here’s my take: Question 1, the campaign finance reform proposal, has me taking a closer look at the referendum process here in Maine. I’m not sure Question 1 is a good fit. It’s important for voters to be able to advance legislation or reconsider legislation rejected by the Legislature, as a version of Question 1 was. I think some issues are a good fit for a ballot vote, and others aren’t.

For me, it comes down to balancing the simplicity of the question posed on the ballot with the complexity of the actual proposed legislation. A good example would be the idea of complex and sweeping tax reform legislation being represented by a simple for-or-against tax reform question — as a pending Republican initiative proposes to do.

Should something of that nature make it to the 2016 ballot — either with or without welfare reform attached — I hope voters take the time to read the text of the proposed legislation, both for understanding of the details (or lack thereof) and to decide if the issue itself is referendum material.

Question 1 proposes to expand disclosure rules for organizations like political action committees and increases penalties for when they violate the rules.  The proposal also increases the individual candidacy allotments and overall funding for our Clean Elections Program.  Oh, and it changes corporate tax code, too.

That’s just my layperson’s summary — the actual text is crazy complicated.  Too crazy complicated for one simple yes or no question, especially for the average voter who has minimal understanding of how these systems work.

And I think that’s a fair rule of thumb for voting on referendum questions. If you read the legislation text and can clearly understand it and its scope, and if from that understanding you derive a clear position, then vote that position.

However, if you read the proposed legislation, and it isn’t entirely clear what is being proposed, or if the potential scope of the proposal is ambiguous, then it may be that the legislation isn’t well suited to the referendum process.

It may be that the legislation warrants debate by elected officials in a legislative branch of government. Which is to suggest that a voter can be, in theory, for what a referendum represents, but against using the referendum process to achieve the represented goal.

And that’s how I feel about Question 1 and campaign finance reform.

Andrew Bossie, president of Mainers for Accountable Elections, speaks with news reporters outside the State House on Tuesday as the organization launches the Yes on Question 1 campaign, which supports campaign finance reform.  (Mario Moretto | BDN)

Andrew Bossie, president of Mainers for Accountable Elections, speaks with news reporters outside the State House in July 2015 as the organization launches the Yes on Question 1 campaign, which supports campaign finance reform. (Mario Moretto | BDN)

Our state legislators and our congressional delegation are the ones who need to debate and legislate reforming the system they know better than anyone. Elected officials have been vetted by and are accountable to their constituents. We, the public, need to hear them debate it, from their place of knowledge, to judge whether they reach an informed and helpful decision.

Ultimately only Congress or the Supreme Court can undo the 2010 Citizens United decision that essentially opened the floodgates to more of the special interest money that was already drowning our political process. In that decision, the court, who knows why, extended free speech protections — including money as a form of speech pertaining to the electoral process — to corporations and unions and, therefore, other large organizations like super PACs. Basically, the decision says there is no real way to stem the flow of big money in elections until Congress or the Supreme Court say otherwise.

Congress could clearly define those protections. One simple amendment clearly defining free speech protections would reflect that Congress is aware that 78 percent of respondents to a Bloomberg poll thought the Citizens United decision should be overturned. It’s not like we haven’t already limited corporations’ freedom of speech in their product advertising — bye, bye Joe Camel.

It’s not a stretch to ask Congress to limit how much big money can influence our electoral process.

Unfortunately, asking Congress to cut off a big chunk of its own supply of money is like asking me to quit smoking while I’m sitting on a pile of pouches of organic, chem-free tobacco. I’m not endorsing smoking at all and am not a heavy smoker, I’m just making an analogy we can all understand. To continue the analogy, we voters need to be the doctors telling Congress it’s time to quit.

That one change would enable states to limit how much is spent on campaign advertising. Limits on advertising spending would make for more substantive campaigns. Rather than inundating us with countless meaningless soundbites and postcard blurbs, campaigns would be forced to really give us something to think about during their limited access to us.

With that one change, Mainers could decide how much out-of-state money, big money or any other kind of money we want involved in our electoral processes. Exactly how much, no more. That’s something Question 1 can’t provide.

Question 1 does bolster Maine’s Clean Elections fund, and I like the idea of Clean Elections, but not until we are able to limit how much is spent on elections in the first place. Without restrictions, funding Clean Elections will just grow more and more expensive with each passing cycle. And the information will continue to grow less and less substantive.

Plus, until Citizens United is overturned, there is no guarantee that Clean Election candidates will be all that clean. As long as their are no limits on participation by outside groups, Clean Election candidates can still be promoted by outside groups and out-of-state groups, as long as there is no traceable coordination and applicable disclosure laws are followed. The 2014 election cycle showed there are ample money sources anxious to tell Mainers how to think.

How helpful was all that money — $14 million on the gubernatorial and state elections? More outside money was spent to oppose Gov. Paul LePage than to oppose the other candidates for governor. Less outside money was spent in support of LePage than in support of Mike Michaud. Who did we get? LePage. It’s almost like all the money spent opposing him had the opposite affect. Gee, thanks!

No wonder those opposing Question 1 are suspicious because three-quarters of the $1.3 million proponents have raised so far comes from out of state.

Also, at this point every time I hear a conservative refer to “welfare” in one context or another (like opponents of clean elections calling them “welfare for politicians”), all I hear is the “waugh, waugh, waugh” noise they used for adults in the old Charlie Brown cartoons.

I also question the appropriateness of proponents saying Question 1 can stem the flow of outside money in elections when the Citizens United decision tells us we can’t. Liberals and conservatives both love to condemn the other side for the way they characterize issues, but this debate is a classic example of the pot and the kettle.

I want Congress to get over their collective selves and respond to vast majorities of voters who agree that the Citizens United needs to be undone. Yes, it takes a supermajority to pass an amendment, but a supermajority of citizens think they should. It is the foundation for any genuine reform.

As much merit as there is behind the idea of citizens demanding campaign finance reform, the energy should be directed toward asking our elected officials to do their jobs.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.