2016-02-25 / Editorial

Being the ‘people’s lobbyist’

Beyond the Headlines
by Rep. Justin Chenette

There is one issue that I’ve been on the forefront of since I arrived at the State House a few years ago; the influence of special interest and lobbyist money over our public policy decision-making.

You would think everyone would be in agreement over getting money out of politics and trying to ensure an ethical and forthright process in our government. Sadly, that isn’t the case. That was something I had to learn the hard way. The battle over reforming the system has been fraught with setbacks and opposition on both sides of the aisle; mainly from those who like the status quo. Oftentimes, having to challenge my own party’s leadership to ultimately get to a point of passing some type of compromise.

Back in 2013, during my first term, I made waves at the State House for making this my first and top issue. I was passionate and to the point – calling out everyone who was playing the game. Needless to say, I was called into the principal’s office (aka the speaker’s office) and chastised for taking this on. We lost that year, but we made a huge line in the sand that this is no longer acceptable.

Flash forward to today, we now have a law on the books that prevents Clean Election candidates from operating and fundraising for political action committees, better known as PACs. My bill, which was combined with a fellow Republican legislator’s bill, passed unanimously after leadership on both sides realized the public was on our side and not theirs. The pressure from state newspapers endorsing my proposals, multiple radio and TV interviews, and a flood of emails from the general public, helped to lay the groundwork.

To set the scene for you, we have a system that continues to favor the lobbyist and special interest group with the largest checkbook. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 400 companies hired 229 lobbyists and spent nearly $5 million to lobby state legislators. That’s insane.

Part of how lobbyists try and influence is to contribute money directly to legislators or legislative candidates. While there are limitations on campaign accounts, there hadn’t been for PACs. An unlimited amount of money could be dumped into these separate accounts no matter if you were a Clean Election candidate or just a sitting legislator.

Ultimately it is up to us legislators that are serving to push back, to stand up for those who elected us to this position. I like to think of myself as the people’s lobbyist. The public isn’t hiring someone to be up here lining the halls to influence the votes taken. That’s why you have us, your elected officials. I have never run a PAC and I’m very proud of that. I refuse to get swept into a corrupt system of completely legalized bribery.

So to recap, we made major progress this past session. We ended the hypocrisy of professing to be “clean” from special interest groups to run a campaign, all the while taking in thousands of dollars from them via a separate account. This rule is just during campaign season. As soon as a candidate becomes a legislator, under law, they can start up a PAC and fundraise. In fact, we have legislators today raking in the dough from the very industries they are supposed to be regulating. For example, let’s say the chairman of the energy and utilities committee is accepting contributions from Time Warner Cable or Verizon. The perceived conflict of interest should be enough to limit that activity.

This is my next task, to ban all sitting legislators from operating or fundraising for PACs. It might take several years, like in this case, but we must get to a place of having a government of, by and for the people and not a government of, by and for the highest bidding lobbyist. Together we can get this done. Together we can reform Augusta to make it work better for us. That has been and will continue to be my mission.

Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/JustinChenette.

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