Illusion of progress


I usually don’t enjoy debunking what appears to be good news. So when my wife tells me we’re using less heating oil this year, I see no reason to mention it’s because the furnace is broken.

If she compliments me for only sipping a couple beers during a long Sunday of watching football, there’s no need to speculate that it might have something to do with those shots of bourbon I gulped whenever she left the room.

And if Maine Citizens For Clean Elections is elated that, thanks to public campaign financing, the amount of private money being donated to legislative candidates is down this year, it seems as if pointing out that those intrepid citizens are delusional would be cruel.

So, call me cruel.

In September, MCCE sent out a news release stating 63 percent of those running for seats in the state House and Senate are using taxpayer money to fund their races. Or is it 62 percent? The release used both numbers. But why quibble over a few thousand of your dollars.

Anyway, 60-something percent is a boost from the 2014 election, when scarcely more than half of potential legislators were sucking on the public teat. But it’s a long way from 2008, when over 80 percent got cash that otherwise could have gone to schools, highways or lower taxes.

The reason for the wide swings in participation has to do with federal court decisions that freed certain types of political action committees to spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” without having to reveal the sources of their cash. This made these super PACs more attractive to major donors with something to hide.

A decade ago, before the legal changes, these groups spent barely $16,000 on Maine elections. By 2014, that figure had increased tenfold, and the total will almost certainly more than double this year.

For instance, the Associated Press reported a super PAC called Progressive Maine (a project of soon-to-be-ex-legislator Diane Russell) is using 50 grand it got from unknown sources in California to defeat Republican legislative leaders. Meanwhile, GOP Gov. Paul LePage is heading something called ICE PAC (early fundraising for a possible U.S. Senate bid in 2018), which has over $300,000 to spend attacking legislators who don’t support tax cuts (read: Democrats).

Meanwhile, according to the Portland Press Herald, political parties are pouring cash into close races. These “independent expenditures” amounted to nearly $500,000 by early October, significantly more than the record spending of two years ago. That figure also dwarfs the $160,000 decline in private donations to campaigns that MCCE is so excited about.

Obviously, the big money has shifted from contributions that can be monitored to super PACs that can’t.

Contrary to common sense, MCCE believes this change is due to a 2015 referendum that allowed publicly funded candidates to qualify for additional money if they’re targeted by outside forces. Instead of having to scuffle along with a mere $5,000 in taxpayer money, a state House candidate could pull in $15,000. On the Senate side, the maximum allocation could increase from $20,000 to $60,000.

According to MCCE, this modest adjustment was an unqualified success – depending, of course, on your definitions of “unqualified” and “success.” In a news release, MCCE executive director Andrew Bossie said, “Mainers want their elected leaders accountable to everyday people in their district, not wealthy special interests that can afford high-priced lobbyists and donors that make big campaign contributions.”

Maybe. But as long as rich folks can get more bang for their bucks if they don’t bother with piddling payouts to individual candidates, they’ll devote their resources to super PACs, where they don’t have to worry about limits on how much they give or reveal their names. Public financing does nothing to deter this shift into the shadows. MCCE’s celebration of the decline in private funding looks like a cynical attempt to justify taxpayer funding.

Or they could be naïve.

Sort of like when my wife gives me a peck on the cheek for picking up my dirty underwear. No need to shatter her illusions by revealing the dog dragged them out in the backyard and buried them.

Could that be a metaphor for something?

If you email good news to, I promise not to rain on your parade.