Bills target money in politics, influence of lobbyists
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A Maine lawmaker has proposed limiting the influence of lobbyists, restricting when former lawmakers can start lobbying and banning the use of political funds for personal profit.
The bills, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette, are set for public hearings Wednesday and Feb. 6 at the Maine Statehouse. Similar bills have failed in the past under Democrats and Republicans amid concerns that current ethics rules are strong enough, but Chenette said several of his bills have buy-in from Democratic leaders wielding newfound control in the Senate and House.
An Associated Press review of campaign finance reports shows individuals who identified as lobbyists gave at least $25,000 to legislative candidates and political action committees run by lawmakers last year. The state’s biggest law and lobbying firms gave over $47,000.
Advocacy group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections found that self-described lawyers and lobbyists gave over $145,000 to political action committees run by lawmakers in the 2016 cycle. The groups that hire those lobbyists — from labor groups to construction companies — regularly donate hundreds of thousands of dollars more in contributions that can be hard to track, said executive director Anna Kellar.
“Unlimited amounts of money are being funneled through sitting lawmakers to PACs. It’s time we rein in any undue influence in this pay-for-play system weighing down good governance in Augusta,” Chenette said.
Most money in Maine politics from special interest groups comes through legislator-run PACs, Kellar said.
“It’s one of the things that we hear about the most from members of the public and voters, across all political spectrums,” Kellar said. “They don’t think lobbyists should be able to give money to the people they’re trying to lobby, and lawmakers shouldn’t be taking from industries they’re regulating.”
Kellar’s group worked with Chenette on some of his legislation, which aims to close what he calls loopholes in state campaign finance law.
Currently, lawmakers cannot accept contributions from lobbyists and their employers when the Legislature is in session. But that creates a situation where Maine lawmakers wait until the minute lawmakers are out of session to start such fundraising.
One of Chenette’s bills would prevent any contributions for lobbyists or their employers year-round. He says the Senate Democratic caucus has made the bill a “top legislative priority.”
Another bill sponsored by Chenette would prevent lawmakers from using their PACs for personal profit. That bill, which is co-sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, is in response to the 2017 revelation that a former Republican lawmaker failed to disclose that he lent his business money from his PAC.
Publicly funded candidates can’t run their own PACs in the first place. Chenette also wants to prevent privately funded candidates from running such groups.
Another of Chenette’s bills would prohibit former lawmakers from lobbying for four years, up from one year currently. That bill would also remove the “safe harbor” in current law that allows former lawmakers to immediately lobby up to eight hours a month.
“There is a revolving door of legislators becoming lobbyists and blurring the lines of who is fighting for the best interest of Maine people,” Chenette said.