I’ve always had a personal governing philosophy that legislators need to be the peoples’ lobbyist. We are elected to try and represent the people that put us in these positions. It is, after all, your seat not mine. There are enough highly paid, corporate and special interest group lobbyists that line the halls of our state house. Someone needs to actually represent you.

When the highest paid lobbyist makes around $300,000 and legislators make on average around $12,000, that should tell you all you need to know about the power dynamics in our state’s capitol building.

Whether in DC or in Augusta, there is a revolving door of legislators becoming lobbyists and lobbyists becoming legislators. It happens on both sides of the aisle. It blurs the lines of who is really fighting for the best interest of Maine people and getting harder and harder to decipher between lobbyists and lawmakers.

‘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 State House dome that line the hallways and testify before committees are actually former lawmakers. Nothing wrong with them getting a job after their service, but there is an issue about the amount time these fellow lawmakers should have to wait before they aim to solely benefit a corporate or advocacy-based client for financial gain when they have business before the legislature.

These former lawmakers know how to work the system having been apart of it. When they become lobbyists immediately after their service ends, they still have built in relationships with current legislators. It tips the scales to favor their new-found clients over the general public. On top of that, it calls into question conflict of interest issues when you have a legislator who is in charge of regulating a particular industry and then they start working for that same industry. Was that the plan all along?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, among the states that have cooling-off periods for former legislators, 26 require a one-year gap between legislating and lobbying. Ten states, plus the Minnesota House, set the waiting period to two years. Simply put: 10 states have stronger ethics rules than Maine.

That was until I came along. This past session, I introduced a bill requiring a one-year waiting period for former legislators from engaging in any compensated lobbying activities at the state house. This closed a loophole that was being exploited. We’ve even had recent examples of potential abuse of this blatant loophole before the Maine Ethics Commission.

Previously, these former lawmakers turned lobbyists were treated like an average voter, resident, citizen, rather than as someone who is financially benefiting from having a discussion with a lawmaker. There needed to be protections in place and stronger ethics rules.

Clearly my colleagues agreed with me that this needed fixing. My bill passed unanimously in the Senate and unanimously in the House. Every single Republican, Democrat, and Independent lawmaker supported this fix. The governor has since signed this new measure into law. Just in time to take effect during an election year when a good number of lawmakers are termed out and could be looking to jump ship into professional lobbying activities.

This change has put Maine on the map for all the right reasons, moving towards Maine having the strongest ethics rules in the entire country.

Ideally, there should be a lifetime ban on legislators becoming lobbyists which would represent a permanent closing of the revolving door. I will be working to build on this success next year to fight for a full legislative term waiting period before legislators can become lobbyists. Two years gives enough time removed from the system to avoid undue influence and even the playing field. But I’ll take this win. I’m pleased that after years of pushing, I’m finally having success moving the needle towards a more ethical government.

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, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is in real estate at the Bean Group, Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, Owner of Chenette Media LLC, and is vice president of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at justinchenette.com.

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