Thursday, April 17, 2014
By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
AUGUSTA – The state's Republican governor and a leading Democratic legislator have teamed up to try to improve the ethical standards for both elected and appointed state officials.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage
State Sen. Emily Cain of Orono
A bill unveiled this week by Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Emily Cain of Orono will require greater disclosure of the financial and political interests of legislators and high-ranking executive branch officials.
The bill, L.D. 1001, proposes four changes to current law:
• Ownership interests of 5 percent or more held by lawmakers, executive branch officials or their immediate family members in “business entities” must be disclosed. Current law only requires disclosure only if a majority share is owned.
• Lawmakers or executive branch officials must disclose if they are in a responsible position in a political party, with a political action committee (PAC) or ballot question committee. Current law requires disclosure only if the lawmaker or executive branch official is a responsible officer in a PAC or ballot question committee.
• The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices will adopt rules that require reporting of income of $2,000 or more in ranges that will be determined by the commission. Current law only requires that the source of the income be reported, but not the amount or range.
• Legislators and executive employees are required to file their disclosure statements electronically and those statements must be available immediately on a publicly accessible website. Current law allows those disclosure statements to be handwritten, and an electronic image of the statement is posted on the ethics commission website.
“This bill increases the amount of information available to the people of Maine,” said LePage.
“Transparency in government is important and it should be applied to both the executive and legislative branches equally. While some executive branch regulators may have conflicts of interest, the same pertains to legislators because they’re making laws.”
Cain was particularly enthusiastic about the requirement for electronic filing of financial disclosure forms.
“It sounds like a little thing but it’s significant because it makes forms searchable and readily accessible to the public,” said Cain.
Current forms are usually filled out by hand; many of the forms displayed on the ethics commission’s website are difficult to read; and there is no ability to electronically search them.
Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for increased government transparency, said that while electronic filing is an improvement over current practice, the proposed reform takes an additional, “very important” step.
“By requiring not only e-filing but immediate, online publishing of financial forms as they are filed, these measures would ensure that Mainers have a clear view of the real-time activity of their legislators and (some) executives, and are put in a better position to keep their government accountable,” said McCann.
LePage and Cain’s bill joins several other ethics reform measures that have been submitted this legislative session.
Other bills include measures to deal with the so-called “revolving door” at the statehouse. Democratic Rep. Adam Goode’s bill would require executive employees “in a major policy-influencing position” to wait one year before accepting a job with “a business activity that is regulated by the state or quasi-state agency by which the former executive employee was employed.” Republican Rep. Jarrod Crockett has submitted a bill to require a one-year waiting period between leaving the legislature and working as a lobbyist.
Cain says that she plans to introduce one more ethics bill, to establish a legislative commission to work over the summer studying the conclusions of a 2012 national report on statehouse ethics that gave Maine an “F” for its lack of rules and laws to deter corruption in government. Cain hopes that commission will come up with even more reform legislation.
“Those types of recommendations could potentially be very sensitive, we’re talking about ethics, we’re talking about transparency, very serious topics,” said Cain. “In order for it to be successful, there has to be legislative ownership of both the process and recommendations in order to get the outcomes that will be most beneficial."
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org