Report gives Maine failing grade for lawmaker disclosures

Posted June 28, 2009, at 9:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine was one of 20 states in the nation to get a failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity for not having stronger laws regarding financial disclosures by its lawmakers, prompting the state’s top two lawmakers to say they will seek a review of those laws in January.

“I think we should have the LVA [Legal and Veteran’s Affairs] committee take a look at our laws and see if there are areas that need improvement,” said Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, state Senate president. “Frankly I thought we were pretty open, but it appears there are areas we should take a look at.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said legislation proposed two years ago requiring greater disclosure was “watered” down during the lawmaking process and did not go as far as she would have supported.

“We did require the information be put online,” she said. “The Center for Public Integrity is a very good organization. I take very seriously their recommendations of what it is we could do better.”

She agreed with Mitchell that the Legislature should “take another look” at its disclosure requirements. She said the Maine Legislature has a tradition of openness that should extend to the financial holdings of its members.

“There have been improvements made in Maine,” said Caitlin Ginley, a researcher for the center. “But other states have made more improvements and that is why Maine’s overall ranking fell.”

She said the study looked at 43 measures of disclosure as spelled out in state law or legislative rule. Maine, like nearly all states, requires a financial disclosure statement but does not require as much information as many states.

For example, she said, Maine’s law is not clear on what spousal information needs to be filed, while it does require disclosure of employment. Maine also requires disclosure of investments held by a lawmaker, but is not clear what investments of a spouse need to be disclosed.

Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, the assistant GOP floor leader, said the center’s ranking surprised him because he agrees with Pingree that the Legislature has a long tradition of openness and disclosure.

“The rule of thumb for me is that the more information that you get out and get public, the better,” he said. “The challenge is that obviously we have a citizen’s legislature and it is a balancing act.”

A decade ago, Maine ranked 33rd among the states. In this study, the state dropped to 41st in the nation, but not because of any changes in state law.

“It’s not that Maine does not require disclosure; it does not require enough disclosure,” the center’s Ginley said.

Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said clarity in existing requirements is as important as requiring disclosure.

“There is an attempt, in some cases, to hide that information by putting [it] in the name of a spouse,” he said. “Were that disclosed, it would be seen as a conflict of interest with the legislator.”

Buzenberg said a significant area where Maine fell short was in the disclosure of real property holdings. State law requires no disclosure of any type by members of the Legislature or their spouses.

“Most of the states in the country disclose that information,” he said.” Maine is among only a dozen that don’t.”

Many states also require the value, or a value range, be disclosed for a lawmaker’s property and spousal properties as well. Some states also require real property in the name of a dependent be disclosed.

“I think that is certainly something we should look at,” Mitchell said. “But, I do want to stress that I think we are pretty open. We are a small state and everybody knows everybody and people in a district know the people they elect and what they do for a living.”

Pingree agreed, but said it is important the Legislature consider expanding disclosure provisions. She said that while the Maine Legislature operates more openly than many other legislatures, the public deserves to know about any potential conflicts lawmakers may have.

“When you look at what has happened in other states, we don’t want to wait for a scandal to do what we should do,” she said.

New Hampshire and Vermont also received failing grades. Vermont, Michigan and Idaho were found to have no disclosure laws for lawmakers. Louisiana and Mississippi were the most improved; and Louisiana and Washington were the only states to receive an A.

The full report can be found online at www.publicintegrity.org.

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