LePage, lawmakers try to get Maine a passing ethics grade
AUGUSTA — Maine’s “F” grade in government integrity issued last year by a national group has led to a number of reforms in the state’s ethics rules this year, including a bipartisan transparency bill proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that he signed into law last week.
The reforms also include two bills signed by the governor to stop the so-called “revolving door” at the statehouse, where lawmakers and executive branch officials leave government service and go directly to work as lobbyists.
The governor’s bill, LD 1001, is “a major departure from what we do now,” said Democratic Senator 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:
• Ownership interests of five percent or more held by lawmakers, executive branch officials or immediate family members in businesses must be reported. Current law requires disclosure only if a majority share is owned.
• Lawmakers or executive branch officials must now disclose if they or immediate family members are in a responsible position in a political party. Current law requires disclosure only if the lawmaker or executive branch official is a responsible officer in a political action commttee (PAC) 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 that will be determined by the legislature during its next session. Current law only requires that 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.
The requirement for electronic forms, said Cain, represents “the beginning of fundamentally changing the public’s ability to access those disclosure records.”
[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]The requirement for electronic forms represents “the beginning of fundamentally changing the public’s ability to access those disclosure records”—Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono[/module]
The current 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 cooling off period between legislative service and lobbying, said he had tried to pass a similar bill two years ago, “but nobody would bite.”
This legislative session, he said, “I was amazed it actually happened.”
Crockett’s bill was passed and so was a related one that set a one-year cooling off period for high-level executive branch officials before they could begin work as a lobbyist.
The difference this time around, 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 that was published in March, 2012.
Maine got an “F” and ranked 46th in the investigation by three nonpartisan, national and international journalism and good government groups.
The score was based on research into 330 indicators of both the laws and practices in 14 categories, from procurement to campaign disclosure to lobbying. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting conducted the research on which Maine’s score was based.
Stung by the black eye the report gave Maine, lawmakers were eager to support reform. “Neither party wanted to be the reason it failed,” said Crockett.
Ann Luther, advocacy chair at the Maine League of Women Voters, said legislators “made a big dent in some areas that desperately needed reform here in Maine.”
Stopping lawmakers and executive branch staffers from going directly into lobbying jobs will have little effect on those officials’ careers, says Luther.
“But while you’re doing the people’s business, you can’t be simultaneously attending to your own self interest,” she said.
Lawmakers failed to pass a bill to study further ethics reform, as well as a bill to stop high-level state executive branch officials from moving directly into jobs in industries those officials regulated, said Luther.
“That’s one area that requires further action,” said Luther, who said the League of Women Voters plans to bring a new proposal to lawmakers to regulate the practice.
And LePage vetoed another ethics bill in late June. That bill would have required the disclosure of donors to a governor-elect’s transition effort. LePage, who disclosed those donors voluntarily during his transition period, said in his veto message that mandating such disclosure casts doubt on the integrity of the governor-elect and “disrespects the decision made at the ballot box.”
Gordon Witkin, managing editor for the Center for Public Integrity, which produced the national report on statehouse integrity in collaboration with Global Integrity and Public Radio International, said the Center was “heartened” to see that the report had contributed information crucial to reform efforts.
“Substantive” legislative changes have been passed in six states, of which Maine is one, said Witkin.
“In addition,” he said, “measures have been passed in 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 statehouse reporting that have occurred over the past decade or so.”
Disclosure: Ann Luther, advocacy chair for the Maine League of Women Voters, is also a board member of, and donor to, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. 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.