AUGUSTA, Maine — “The truthiness bill.” “The lie-detector law.” “The truth-squad bill.”
In hallway conversations, Democrats have come up with many names for Gov. Paul LePage’s bill that would make the state Ethics Commission investigate claims that candidates for state office had lied on the campaign trail.
But it was with zero floor speeches or debate that the Senate on Thursday rejected the bill, which opponents have said would be unconstitutional. Still, the Senate Democratic office criticized the bill in a press release shortly after the vote.
“The Maine Ethics Commission isn’t a lie detector test,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, in a written statement. “They are tasked with ensuring candidates and campaigns follow the law. It’s not their job to run interference between opponents, nor should it be.”
LePage submitted the bill in March, saying the measure would bring more honesty to a campaign season many expect to be among the most fiery in recent memory. The bill would charge the Maine Ethics Commission with accepting complaints from candidates for governor or the Legislature who allege an opponent has told a lie on the campaign trail.
The commission would then investigate the claim and, if they determined the candidate had lied, report the falsehood to the public.
After a public hearing, the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs submitted a near-unanimous “ought not to pass” report, opposed only by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, which was speedily accepted by the Senate on Thursday.
At a press conference Wednesday at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, LePage predicted his effort would be rejected by the Legislature.
”This is how innocuous it was: Any person, running for governor, Legislature or the Senate, would not knowingly and deliberately lie to the Maine people during a campaign season, and it was defeated,” he said.
He added later: “I think sometimes, if they want the Wild West, maybe we should just become the Wild West.”
The bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which said the efforts to have the government fact-check speech in the past have been deemed unconstitutional.
“It is unfortunate when politicians, business leaders and anyone else attempts to deliberately mislead the public, but it is a much greater threat to our democracy to have the government presume to decide for the public what is truth and what is falsehood,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine.
“Responsibility for seeking out the truth belongs with the people, with journalists, with scholars and with scientists. The Ethics Commission is plenty busy already. Do not add ‘truth police’ to their list of responsibilities,” she said.
Amarasingham pointed to several court cases in which speech — even when purposefully misleading or inaccurate — had been protected from retribution by the government. But Hank Fenton, deputy counsel for the governor, argued that LePage’s proposal was within the bounds of the Constitution because it did not impose a penalty on people who lied on the campaign trail.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.