No, I will not pay for your bumper sticker

Political campaign signs at Broadway and State Street in Bangor in 2002. Gabor Degre | BDN

Political campaign signs at Broadway and State Street in Bangor in 2002. Gabor Degre | BDN

Let’s say you’re a teacher, single with no dependents, and make roughly $35,000 annually. This year, you would most likely owe the state of Maine about $1,650 in income taxes.

Congratulations! You just worked hard all year to pay for a state House candidate to run for office unopposed.

I’m sure it feels great that you spent an entire year working yourself to the bone so some candidate who doesn’t even have an opponent might buy buttons, bumper stickers, signs, a laptop or throw himself a party.

This is just one of the reasons why public financing of political campaigns is so offensive, and Question 1 on this year’s ballot, which seeks to expand the Maine Clean Election Law, is such an abomination.

Oh, the idea sounds nice, doesn’t it? Clean elections? Who is opposed to that? What is the alternative? Dirty elections? I don’t like dirty things, and certainly not elections. Sign me up!

Unfortunately it is just another Orwellian mind game. The quick, easy and superficial argument will typically win, but it often creates the most damaging law. That is certainly true of Question 1.

So what does Question 1 do? Well, it basically takes the existing “clean election” system, and supercharges it, by pumping a lot more taxpayer dollars into the system.

Now, gubernatorial candidates, who are not able to take advantage of the system currently, will have up to $3 million of your dollars available to them to run in the primary and general election. State Senate candidates can make use of up to $70,000 for their run. State House candidates get $17,500.

Back to that teacher, that means that for a Republican and a Democrat running in a single legislative district, it would take him or her and 21 coworkers to finance just that single race. For a state Senate race, it would take this hypothetical teacher and 84 colleagues, to pay for the race.

And in a replay of the 2010 Maine gubernatorial election, in which there were seven Republicans and four Democrats on the primary ballot, plus three viable independent candidates for the general election, the numbers get stomach turning.

In total, if everyone ran under the rules of this new proposal and the fund had enough money in it — which is what the proponents of this referendum want — the total bill for that race would have been $21 million in taxpayer funds. For anyone counting, that would eat up the entire Maine tax liability of 12,728 hypothetical teachers.

Twelve. Thousand. Seven. Hundred. Twenty. Eight.

And what do Maine people get for that tremendous investment? Insincere politicians polluting their television screens? Seeing their towns littered with ugly campaign signs? Their phones constantly ringing from robocalls and aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts? Hard-earned tax dollars being frittered away to a slimy cadre of consultants?

Oh, but it gets worse. Let’s say you’re a candidate running under this law, and that you pay thousands of dollars in “consulting fees” to a partisan firm. Let’s say you are joined by a hundred others in doing the same.

Suddenly, this partisan firm has millions of dollars at its disposal and can use the ambiguity of “consulting” fees to directly inject cash however they want, wherever they want, for the larger political goal of electing members of that party statewide.

Everything is legal. Candidates report those vague expenditures, funnel an immense amount of money to a de facto party organ, giving lucrative kickbacks to vulture consultants, who can then divert resources into swing districts, circumventing the intended purpose of the law. This has already been happening for years, by the way, all on your dime.

That is what you would be buying in Question 1. Everything you already hate about politics, only more of it, and paid for by your tax dollars.

The irony in the situation is that proponents of “clean elections,” and by extension this referendum, are making the hilariously false case to you that this is an attempt to get money out of politics.

Just like the first clean election law, Question 1 would actually make the problem of money in politics worse. In truth, all the clean election law does is drive money into deep, dark holes.

Monied interests who want to influence elections will set up political action committees, c(4) groups, and c(6) groups to try to impact races. Politics will get nastier, with a lot more (dark) money in it, and the system will suffer.

The more you know about Question 1, the more obviously poisonous to democracy, offensive to taxpayers, and antithetical to common sense it is. But, at the end of the day, its backers have the easy soundbite argument, so get to work, you might be on the hook for some more bumper stickers soon.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.