Gov. LePage sued for not releasing $1.4 million for taxpayer-funded campaigns

Gov. Paul LePage (WGME)

AUGUSTA, Maine (BDN) -- Advocates for taxpayer-funded campaigns filed a lawsuit against Gov. Paul LePage and his administration on Thursday in a bid to force him to release at least $1.4 million in Clean Election money that is owed to 120 Maine gubernatorial and legislative candidates.

The program established by Maine voters in 1996 is in jeopardy for the November election. The Republican governor has refused to sign a routine financial order increasing the amount of appropriated money that it can spend before June 30. House Republicans have held up a bill to fix a legislative error that will keep the fund from spending money as of July 1.

That leaves the Maine Ethics Commission — which administers the fund — in a difficult spot. While the commission has $5 million, it only can allocate $390,000 on the Clean Election system by week’s end, though 120 candidates may be owed just less than $1.4 million by then. On Wednesday, commissioners reduced payments to candidates accordingly — by 72 percent.

[Related: Gov. LePage is blocking public campaign payments, Maine ethics chief says]

All of this led Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group that advocates for the public campaign financing system, to file Thursday’s lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court on behalf of seven legislative candidates and four Clean Election donors against LePage and his budget department.

It seeks to force LePage to release the funds owed to candidates by June 30, alleging that the governor is violating a section of the Maine Constitution saying laws must be “faithfully executed” and that LePage can’t undermine laws by restricting the flow of money. It asks the court to order the release of the $1.4 million and to hold a court hearing within 10 days.

The lawsuit doesn’t mention the controversy around the error in state law, but John Brautigam, an attorney for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said “the same legal principles” apply to that case.

Spokespeople for LePage didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit on Thursday. Tim Feeley, spokesman for Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who is running for governor, said Mills won’t be involved in the case and that attorneys assigned to the commission “will review the filing and respond appropriately in due course.”

One of the candidates most harmed by any Clean Election issue will be independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who is running for governor. She has received $800,000 under the program to date and may qualify for $350,000 more by week’s end. She’ll only get $98,000 if the current situation continues.

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