In its statement of purpose, Maine’s statute on governmental ethics suggests that having part-time citizen legislators has the potential for conflicts of interest.

It recognizes that “the increasing complexity of government at all levels, with broader intervention into private affairs, makes conflicts of interest almost inevitable for all part-time public officials, and particularly for legislators. The Legislature may and should, however, define ethical standards, as most professions have done, to chart the areas of real or apparent impropriety.”

This statute also assumes that the people we elect will not be career politicians in Augusta. This section of the law lays it out in clear terms.

“Membership in the Legislature is not a full-time occupation and is not compensated on that basis; moreover, it is measured in two-year terms, requiring each member to recognize and contemplate that his election will not provide him with any career tenure.

“Most legislators must look to income from private sources, not their public salaries, for their sustenance and support for their families; moreover, they must plan for the day when they must return to private employment, business or their professions.”

In other words, citizen-legislators are responsible for their basic needs and should not rely on legislative service for their living or long-term benefits.

That said, past legislatures have passed laws that provide its members with the same health care insurance plan as full-time state employees. For example, a legislator currently pays nothing for his or her health or dental insurance according to the maine.gov website.

Legislators also may become eligible for a state pension after serving five years. Their final pension is determined by the average of their highest three years of state government compensation. That may be one reason why some legislators slide into well-paid positions within the bureaucracy following their service in the House or the Senate.

In addition, those legislators qualifying for retirement benefits also have their individual health care premiums paid for by the taxpayers in their retirement years.

Sometimes the potential for additional perks are taken to the extreme. A few years back, former state Rep. Richard Burns of Berwick submitted a bill titled “An Act to Enhance the Concept of Representative Democracy by Ensuring Basic Compensation for Elected Representatives.” It would have created a welfare system within the Legislature.

If a legislator did not make enough money to fulfill the “basic needs” of his family’s household, Burns wanted the taxpayers to pay for housing, transportation, child care, health care insurance and out-of-pocket health care expenses, clothing, food, personal care and recreation.

Burns’ bill also decreed that legislators who already earned enough to provide for their family’s basic financial needs would receive nothing for their service to the state. Remarkably, Burns recruited six other Democratic and Republican legislators as co-sponsors.

The Burns bill was defeated in committee, but it went through drafting, a public hearing and committee deliberations. With stronger leadership, it should not have seen the light of day.

It surely challenged the notion of a part-time citizen legislator.

So what’s to be done?

Service in the Legislature deserves compensation, but how much? There is a reasonable argument that part-time legislators should not be benefitting from their legislative service beyond the years in which they serve. Retirement benefits should be for full-time public employees, which legislators are not.

And, if they are not covered by their own private health plan, perhaps a raise in pay is in order to help fund their coverage in the open market, where individual citizens are paying more than $1,000 per month with a deductible and co-insurance limit of $1,000.

That would be a more meaningful experience so they could see the impact that a virtually noncompetitive insurance market here in Maine has produced — an outcome of the Legislature’s public policy. If they qualify financially, they also could apply to the state’s Dirigo health plan.

All this is to suggest that having legislators participating as full members of these state employee plans can only cloud their objectivity when it comes to establishing benefits. That would seem to be a conflict — or certainly the appearance of a conflict.

There really ought to be a clear distance between the beneficiaries and the policymakers. Otherwise, how can meaningful changes occur in these important but expensive programs?

Maine is fortunate to have so many good people willing to serve as policymakers. But it also needs to have those elected officials continually examining and challenging the status quo.

creating distance between public policymakers and the bureaucracy, our legislators’ objectivity may be improved while simultaneously grounding them in the same reality in which their constituents must live and work.

What do you think and what are we going to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]