2017-05-11 / Editorial

Let’s strengthen the integrity of the Legislature

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

We live in an era where it’s easy to question whether government really has our back. Between the money and the lobbyists, it’s easy to lose sight of the good work taking place day in and day out.

As a journalist, I was trained to question governmental actions and a politician’s motives – to see through the facade, the smiles and press releases to understand the meaning behind decision-making. In fact, many of my courses in college centered on ethics and how to hold government’s feet to the fire from a journalistic standpoint. Now as someone on the inside, I see the real issues we must address to move beyond the manufactured crisis of the day brought on by the individuals that line the halls at the statehouse. And no, it’s not the general public. It’s the bankrolled suits that are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to schmooze and satisfy legislators to ease regulations for corporations and benefit particular groups. When the highest paid lobbyist makes close to $300,000 and each legislator averages a mere $11,000 a year, something is backward. That should tell you all you need to know about the power dynamics at the statehouse. What convolutes this situation, beyond the unlimited amounts of money that flows from these lobbyists to legislative political action committees, is the revolving door of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists.

I was appointed this legislative session to serve on the Senate Committee on Conduct & Ethics. I think the fact I was selected to serve on such a committee from a Republican Senate president, should tell you how my colleagues on both sides of the aisle view my commitment to reforming the system. It is something I’ve been passionate about since I took office back in 2012. Ever since, I’ve introduced a slew of reform bills aiming to tackle various aspects of issues surrounding transparency, governmental accountability, and the need to reduce the role of big money in our politics.

Most recently we’ve had an example of a recent former legislator lobbying on behalf of a special interest group. I should note that this individual is someone I worked with in the House of Representatives, have respect for, is a Democrat, and now works for a Democratic-leaning organization. This isn’t a witch-hunt. It clearly isn’t to score political points. In fact, it’s not easy championing reforms when members of my own party are on the forefront of recent inquiries, but I believe it’s vital. This is not personal. It shouldn’t be about one particular person or situation. This is about changing the entire system to make it more honest and accountable to you.

Under current Maine law, senators, representatives and executive branch state officials cannot become registered lobbyists until a year has elapsed after their service. However, no one is required to register as a lobbyist unless they lobby for more than eight hours in a month. This a loophole that allows former lawmakers to participate in lobbying without waiting a year, so long as they stay under the registration threshold.

Why this is a problem is quite simple. Lawmakers have spent years developing relationships with individuals under the dome; fellow lawmakers, government officials, lobbyists etc. So when they themselves become lobbyists, you can see where an inner knowledge of the system combined with key relationships can be a recipe for placing their corporation or special interest above the rest, and above Maine people.

To put more distance between lobbyists and lawmakers, I’ve introduced a bill that would ban legislators from becoming registered lobbyists or being paid for any lobbying activities for at least four years after their service has ended. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 34 states have enacted a “cooling-off period” before a former legislator can come back to work at the Legislature as a lobbyist. Eight states – Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, and New York – have the highest bans for former legislators at two years. My bill would make Maine have the toughest ethics laws in the entire country surrounding this revolving door policy. It would ban former lawmakers and state officials from becoming lobbyists or conducting any paid lobbying activities for at least four years.This would mean individuals would have to wait through two legislative sessions/terms before returning to the state house as a paid lobbyist. While former legislators may make good lobbyists, it weakens the integrity of the institution by having a government of the lobbyists, by the corporations, and for the bottom line. Maine people deserve better.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. 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. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.com.

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