Saturday, March 8, 2014
By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
AUGUSTA – Maine's "F" grade for government integrity, issued last year by a national group, has led to reforms in the state's ethics rules, including a bipartisan transparency bill proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that he signed into law last week.
In this 2002 file photo, Shapleigh Middle School seventh-graders use their laptops in the hallway outside the Senate chamber as lawmakers and lobbyists go about business at the Maine State House in Augusta. Maine's "F" grade for government integrity, issued last year by a national group, has led to reforms in the state's ethics rules, including a bipartisan transparency bill proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that he signed into law last week. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
The reforms also include two bills signed by the governor to stop the "revolving door" at the State House, where lawmakers and executive branch officials leave government service and go directly to work as lobbyists.
The governor's transparency bill, L.D. 1001, is "a major departure from what we do now," said Democratic Sen. Emily Cain, who sponsored the bill after LePage proposed it. "It will increase transparency and disclosure and will ultimately improve the integrity of the Legislature and the public's access to important information."
The bill has four major provisions:
• Business ownership interests of 5 percent or more held by lawmakers, executive branch officials or their immediate family members must be reported. Current law requires disclosure only if a majority share is owned.
• Lawmakers and executive branch officials must disclose any immediate family members who are in responsible positions in political parties. Current law requires disclosure only if a lawmaker or executive branch official is a responsible officer in a political action committee or ballot question committee.
• The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices must draft rules to require reporting of income of $2,000 or more, in ranges to be determined by the Legislature. Current law requires only that sources of income be reported, not the amount or range.
• Legislators and executive branch 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; an electronic image of the statement is posted on the ethics commission's website.
The requirement for electronic forms represents "the beginning of fundamentally changing the public's ability to access those disclosure records," said Cain.
The handwritten responses are often unreadable and provide little detail. Records will now contain more information about legislators' business and financial relationships, will be searchable and will allow citizens "to make sense of them in a way that is not cumbersome," said Cain.
LePage issued a statement Monday saying, "These new laws will play a role in ensuring public trust in government and addressing some inadequacies in the current ethics system.These efforts are good for the health of our democracy and Maine people."
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, sponsor of the bill to establish a one-year period between legislative service and lobbying, said he tried to pass a similar bill two years ago, "but nobody would bite."
This legislative session, he said, "I was amazed it actually happened."
A related bill passed to set a one-year period for high-level executive branch officials before they can begin work as lobbyists.
The difference this time, Crockett said, was "the light shed upon the subject" by the State Integrity Investigation, a first-in-the-nation assessment of accountability and transparency across the 50 states. It was published in March 2012.
Maine got an "F" and ranked 46th in the investigation by three nonpartisan journalism and good-government groups.
The score was based on research into 330 indicators of laws and practices in 14 categories, from procurement to campaign disclosure to lobbying. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting did the research on which Maine's score was based.
Stung by the report, Maine lawmakers were eager to support reform. "Neither party wanted to be the reason it failed," said Crockett.
Ann Luther, advocacy chair for the Maine League of Women Voters, said stopping lawmakers and executive branch staffers from going directly into lobbying will have little effect on their careers.
"But while you're doing the people's business, you can't be simultaneously attending to your own self-interest," she said.
A bill to study further ethics reform failed, as did a bill to stop high-level executive branch officials from moving directly into jobs in industries they regulated, said Luther.
"That's one area that requires further action," said Luther, and the League of Women Voters plans to bring a new proposal to lawmakers.
Gordon Witkin, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, which produced the national report, said the center was "heartened" to see the report contribute information crucial to reform efforts.
"Substantive" changes have been passed in six states, said Witkin: Maine, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Rhode Island.
"We feel as if the project writ large drew attention to major, major issues of transparency and accountability," said Witkin.
Those issues "may have been under-covered or underappreciated in the past, particularly given the deep cuts in state house reporting that have occurred over the past decade or so."
Ann Luther, advocacy director for the Maine League of Women Voters, is a board member of, and donor to, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell.