2019-02-07 / Editorial

Revolving door of lobbyists should be shut

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

There is a revolving door of legislators becoming lobbyists and lobbyists becoming legislators. It’s blurring the lines of who is really fighting for the best interest of Maine people and getting harder and harder to decipher between the two.

While it’s easy to say this is just happening in the hallowed halls of DC, it is not an isolated problem. In fact, I would argue, the situation is more prevalent in Maine due to the part time nature of the state legislature’s work.

“Revolving door” is a phrase that describes the practice of legislators leaving public service and heading immediately into positions that involve lobbying their former colleagues. Ethics laws in all but nine states limit this practice by setting mandatory waiting periods before a legislator may register as a lobbyist or engage in lobbying activities.

Many of the lobbyists under the statehouse dome that line the hallways and testify before committees are actually former lawmakers. Nothing wrong with that, but the issue that needs to be resolved is amount time these fellow lawmakers should have to wait before they aim to solely benefit a corporate or advocacy-based client for financial gain.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, among the states that provide for coolingoff periods for former legislators, 26 require a one-year gap between legislating and lobbying. Ten states, plus the Minnesota House, set the waiting period at two years. Simply put: 10 states have stronger ethics rules than Maine. No longer.

As part of the ethics package I’ve introduced before the legislature, one bill would prohibit a former legislator from engaging in any compensated lobbying activities for four years after that person’s term as a legislator ends. Currently, legislators would have to wait a year before becoming a full-time lobbyist. Why a four-year ban? The current one-year ban is too short. Lawmakers are using their inner working knowledge of the system to parlay cushy and lucrative lobbying gigs immediately following their service.

Moving to a four-year ban on lobbying allows for two full legislative terms away before coming back to profit off the system. Two terms provides enough time to lapse where there could be different players at the statehouse from when the lawmaker roamed the halls, leveling the playing field. Ideally, former lawmakers should be banned from being lobbyists for life, but this is the next best thing.

This change would put Maine on the map for all the right reasons. We’d have the strongest ethics rules in the entire country.

Moreover, this bill aims to address a major loophole that allows former lawmakers to lobby but not have to publicly register as a lobbyist. As long as it’s less than eight hours a month, individuals who are paid to speak to lawmakers, even if they are former lawmakers themselves, don’t have to register as a lobbyist under current law. Subsequently, they don’t have to follow transparency or ethics rules that other lobbyists have to abide by either. They are treated like an average voter, resident, citizen, rather than as someone who is financially benefiting from having a discussion with a lawmaker.

No one is keeping track of those hours that are allowed under a “safe harbor” provision in the law. It’s based on the assumption of self reporting. Is that phone call they made counted as lobbying? How about an email to a legislator? Try tracking that. This opens up the system to frequent abuses without tightening the rules and being clear in state law what is allowed and what is not allowed.

We’ve even had recent examples of potential abuse of this blatant loophole where legitimate questions about a former lawmaker’s lobbying practices where brought before the Maine Ethics Commission because of concern for not abiding by the one-year ban and not tracking those eight hours.

Interestingly enough, the Maine Ethics Commission voted unanimously in 2017 to advance legislation to bar all lobbying by former legislators in the first year after their tenure ends. Essentially closing this eight-hour a month loophole. Legislation was supposed to be put forward last session, but wasn’t. The intent was to fix this issue and I intend to see it through.

LD 76 would go a long way to reducing the revolving door of legislators who become lobbyists, strengthen transparency and make government more ethical.

Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, and a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, Marketing Director of the Scamman/Valentino Real Estate Team, and is Vice President of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at www.JustinChenette.com.

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