Maine people who work hard and play by the rules recognize a conflict of interest when they see one. So they aren’t buying the spin from House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, that Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, did nothing wrong when he accepted $9,000 from a political action committee to advocate for the passage of 2016 ballot initiative for an income surtax to fund education.
Sadly, Gideon has circled the wagons around Tipping, and she is refusing to convene the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether Tipping’s job supporting Question 2 on last November’s ballot creates a conflict of interest. The Maine Republican Party in February filed a Freedom of Access request for her communications with Tipping over the past year, but her office has yet to comply with that request and says not all requested documents may be released.
What bothers me most about this sequence of events is the message it sends to voters who are already cynical about what they perceive as rampant cronyism and corruption in state government. Too many Maine people regard Augusta as a swamp that needs to be drained, rather than a place where the people’s representatives do the people’s business out in the open.
It has been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. That’s why we need to convene the House Ethics Committee to hold public hearings to shine a light on what appears to be a breach of legislative ethics. If he did nothing wrong, let Tipping have his moment in the sun to show everyone once and for all.
Last May, Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a PAC backed by teachers’ unions, paid Tipping $9,000 to advocate for passage of Question 2, which placed a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000 to raise an estimated $150 million to fund education. He took this job while he was still a member of the education committee, which oversees education funding. Believe it or not, that was perfectly legal under Maine law, but what happened next raises red flags.
After the election, Gideon appointed Tipping to serve as House chair of the Taxation Committee. That committee is debating bills to implement, modify or even repeal the 3 percent income surtax for which Tipping was paid to campaign.
This arrangement raises the obvious question: Does his work on the Question 2 campaign create a conflict of interest — or the appearance of a conflict — that would require Tipping to recuse himself from voting on these bills or even step down as the House chair of the committee? That question may be a close call, but Tipping’s failure to report that income he received from the PAC in a timely manner last year is clearly a violation of state ethics law.
As far as I’m concerned, his failure to report the income from the PAC within 30 days as required by law, and his failure to publicly announce that he was a paid to campaign for the passage of Question 2, suggest Tipping knew he had something to hide. It’s fair to say that from the very beginning of his involvement with the union-funded PAC, Tipping has been playing hide-and-seek with the voters.
Given this history, I don’t know how Gideon justifies her refusal to convene the House Ethics Committee. What’s more, her stonewalling a public records request for her correspondence with Tipping suggests that she too has something to hide and wants the festering scandal swept under the rug and forgotten. It begs many more questions about the patronage system in Augusta and how the inexperienced speaker of the House selects committee chairs.
If the voters want to drain the swamp in Augusta, they need to start applying constituent pressure on legislative leadership. Call Gideon today at 287-1300 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to let her know that the status quo is unacceptable. Ask her to immediately convene the House Ethics Committee for public hearings and to promptly disclose all public records of her communications with Tipping.
No more delay, no more excuses, no more stonewalling.
Politics as usual at the State House will continue only as long as Maine people allow it.
Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, is serving his third term in the Maine House of Representatives, and he serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. He represents District 137. He may be reached at email@example.com.