CONTRIBUTORS

It’s time to get big money out of the State House, once and for all

Posted March 13, 2017, at 12:29 p.m.

Mainers care deeply about civic engagement. We expect our public officials to be accessible to their constituents, and government to be responsive to the average citizen.

That’s why it’s so disturbing that we have a completely legal system the prioritizes access to public officials for lobbyists and corporations with the largest checkbooks, who crowd out the everyday citizen.

The amount of money in politics has reached record levels. We need to stem the flow of special interest money into lawmakers’ pockets once and for all, and I have sponsored a bill — LD 413 — that does just that by banning lobbyists from contributing to candidate campaigns or PACs run by elected officials.

Between 2014 and 2015, more than 400 companies hired 229 lobbyists and spent nearly $5 million to lobby legislators. That dollar amount pales in comparison to the financial contributions that flow from these same lobbyists and the groups that hire them directly to legislators’ political action committees and campaigns.

In the halls of the State House, it’s well-known that there are lawmakers who prioritize calls from big-dollar donors over those from constituents. It’s not illegal, but there is no doubt this arrangement undermines public trust and leaves the door open to classic pay-for-play corruption.

The working family struggling to make ends meet doesn’t have money to hire lobbyists. Neither does the high school student whose foreign language class or band program was eliminated because of a lack of funding from Augusta, nor the low-income senior on a fixed income.

Regular Maine citizens don’t hire lobbyists, and they shouldn’t have to. Those of us elected by our local communities are supposed to advocate on their behalf. Unfortunately, many of our colleagues — from both parties and from all over the state — participate in this big-money game of influence without batting an eye.

Legislators can receive money through their PACs and campaign committees directly from the industries they are charged with regulating. Whether these contributions cause lawmakers to vote in the lobbyists’ favor or not, their very existence creates a cloud of uncertainty around the legislative process. They create an appearance of corruption that undermines our democratic institutions regardless of whether any votes were really “bought.”

It’s little wonder that the public has little faith in our democratic institutions when lawmakers who sit on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which overseas telecommunication regulations, can accept money from companies like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.

A recent Portland Press Herald report found that between 2015 and 2016 lobbying firms, big pharma, insurance companies, banks, casinos and the gas industry were among the top contributors to dozens of legislator-led PACs. This represents hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to legislators that could sway policy favorably in their direction.

The idea that our political leaders can be financially influenced adds fuel to the fires of distrust in government, and casts doubt on whether our elected officials really have our back. It creates unnecessary questions about exactly whose interests they represent. To restore public trust, sitting legislators should be banned from accepting donations from lobbyists.

LD 413, alongside a package of PAC reform legislation, would reduce the role of dark money in our legislative process.

Currently, lobbyists are banned from donating to politicians during the legislative session. But they can give contributions right up until the opening bell, and they can resume throwing money at us the moment we adjourn. Fundraisers for various PACs and campaign committees are packed immediately before session starts and immediately following session.

This in-session ban leaves a loophole large enough to drive a truckload of money through. The influence and potential conflicts of interest still are palpable while we conduct the people’s work.

Six states — Alaska, Tennessee, California, Connecticut, Kentucky and South Carolina — have various bans on lobbyist contributions. Maine can be next. This bill extends the lobbyist ban on political contributions for the entire year, preventing undue influence on state officials from legislators to the governor.

To maintain our state’s proud tradition of open, transparent, accessible and public-minded government, we need to get special interest money out of politics once and for all.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, is the lead Senate Democrat on the Taxation Committee.

SEE COMMENTS →