Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Friday defended his refusal to release over $1 million in overdue public campaign funds to more than 120 legislative candidates and one gubernatorial hopeful.
LePage and his finance chief Alec Porteous argued in legal briefs that the courts can't decide whether a governor should sign a financial order. Their lawyer argued that candidates have failed to prove that the hold on some public campaign funds will cause "irreparable harm" to their campaigns.
Several publicly financed candidates and an advocacy group are suing LePage and Porteous for refusing to sign routine financial orders this spring to release the money, which was due through June. The governor's move left Maine's ethics commission able to only pay out 26 percent of the $1.4 million it owed candidates for that period.
"The governor must follow the law and release the funding. There is no legal excuse for throwing the election into turmoil," said John Brautigam, an attorney for the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
The candidates and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections have argued LePage is curtailing political speech at the height of an election cycle.
Their lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order releasing the money. Oral arguments could be held later this month, according to Anna Kellar, joint executive director at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine.
Voters in 1996 approved the nation's first program to fully fund candidates, and lawmakers have funded it for two decades. But LePage's lawyer says public candidates should have prepared for the risk of insufficient funding when they opted into the public funding system.
"Mostly notably, even if there is a contract between the candidates and the state (which is doubtful), the act provides an explicit remedy in the event of insufficient public funding: the commission can allow candidates to raise private funds to make up any shortfalls," wrote LePage's outside counsel Patrick Strawbridge.
In a separate issue, public funding to candidates after July 1 also remains on hold because lawmakers haven't fixed an error in Maine's budget.
Lawmakers passed a budget last year to provide an advance transfer of $3 million to Maine's public campaign finance fund. But an unintended error in Maine's budget doesn't allow the state to disperse public funding to candidates after July 1.
Lawmakers have failed to fix the typo or negotiate a compromise.