Sunday, March 9, 2014
By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
State legislators and top appointed officials won't be able to take jobs as lobbyists right after they leave the State House, under a bill endorsed unanimously by a legislative committee on Friday.
That was one provision among several ethics reform measures passed by the Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
The committee also voted unanimously in support of bills significantly increasing financial disclosure for legislators and government officials. But it killed a bill that would have prevented executive branch officials from taking jobs in the industries they regulated.
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and the sponsor of one of the bills, said there's a limit to how far legislators can go.
"We are taking seriously the need to ensure the perception and reality of credibility and integrity in the Legislature and the executive branch," she said. "I think we need to be thoughtful about doing this, and there's only so many bills that will actually pass."
The first measure endorsed by the committee was a bipartisan bill proposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Sen. Emily Cain of Orono. That bill has four major provisions:
Ownership interests of 5 percent or more held by lawmakers, executive branch officials or their immediate family members in businesses must be disclosed. Current law 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, a political action committee or a 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 must adopt rules that require legislators and high-level executive branch employees to report income of $2,000 or more in ranges that will be determined by the commission. Current law requires that only the source of the income be reported, 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.
Rep. Michael Beaulieu, R-Auburn, a member of the committee, initially balked at the requirement to disclose income, even if it's only listed in a range of amounts.
"I never understood why anyone would have a need for that kind of information," said Beaulieu.
Jonathan Wayne, head of the state's ethics commission, told Beaulieu that providing the public with more precise information about a legislator's income was a way to prevent financial interests from influencing a lawmaker's decisions.
The disclosure was proposed "so the public has a sense of what are the influences that a particular member is under," said Wayne. "When you have the amount, you have the sense of how much an individual can be influenced."
Two measures to close the "revolving door" were then considered. The first, to prevent legislators from lobbying for one year after their term ends, was quickly approved.
The second bill, L.D. 859, sponsored by Russell, passed only after Russell modified or stripped three controversial provisions. One would have expanded the definition of lobbying to include those who try to influence regulatory, not just legislative, actions; another would have prevented executive branch officials from lobbying for five years after government service; the third would have barred hiring lobbyists directly into high-level executive branch jobs.
Russell amended her bill to require only a one-year waiting period for executive branch officials who want to become lobbyists. It, too, passed with a unanimous vote.
But approval wasn't in the cards for a bill requiring high-level executive branch officials 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."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, may have sunk the bill himself. Standing before the committee, he complimented the members for approving other aspects of the bill -- increased disclosure requirements -- that also appeared in bills considered earlier in the morning.
But then Goode spoke of his provision to make it unlawful for state officials to leave their jobs and immediately go to work for industries they regulated.
"I hate to put up a new issue when you've been doing such good work today," Goode said.
The committee promptly killed the bill.
That disturbed Ann Luther, advocacy chair of Maine's League of Women Voters.
"I think it's really too bad that the committee did not seriously consider a ban on post-executive branch employment in the private sector that was regulated by those employees when in government service. Many states do it, for good reason," said Luther.
"We have had an instance where this exact thing did happen, and it wasn't against the law," said Luther. That incident, she said, happened in 2007-08, when Maine's chief utilities regulator, Kurt Adams, negotiated for and ultimately accepted a job offer and "equity units," or shares, from a prominent wind power developer while still head of his agency -- and when the developer had business before the agency.
"What he did looked bad," said Luther. "It wasn't illegal and probably should have been. Maybe there was no influence, no trading of favors, but it certainly raised that specter. And the people who favor wind power, who believe in wind power and its future certainly had their cause damaged by the action he took."
But Russell said she didn't intend to kill the prohibition in Goode's bill, which she co-sponsored. Cain has sponsored one more ethics bill that has yet to be considered by the Legislature, said Russell.
"I thoroughly intend to see that be part of the next bill," said Russell. "It's certainly not dead in my book, I would never have voted down Rep. Goode's bill if I had thought that that idea was dead."
The bills now go to the Legislature, where bills with unanimous committee support usually are passed without debate. They would then go to the governor for his consideration.
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell.
Disclosure: Ann Luther is a member of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting's board of directors.