The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices took a step forward this week when it decided state agency advocacy expenditures on election issues should be disclosed. It would be up to lawmakers to enact such a law change. They should go much further and prohibit state employees from campaigning for or against referendum issues in their official capacities, just as they are prohibited from campaigning for candidates.
The issue was in the spotlight this fall after the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was actively involved in the campaign against Question 1, which sought to ban the use of bait, hounds and traps for recreational bear hunting. The referendum failed at the polls — the outcome sought by DIF&W.
DIF&W employees appeared at public forums in uniform during working hours to advocate for a “no” vote. The department hired companies to build a website and produce videos — featuring its employees — as part of the campaign. None of this spending was disclosed through campaign finance reports. Although DIF&W was heavily involved in the campaign, it did not register as a ballot question committee. Groups advocating for the defeat of Question 1 did not include the state expenditures in their reporting, so the department time and money spent on the referendum was not disclosed to the public.
Certainly, DIF&W employees, who are experts in bear biology and management, should be able to provide factual information to help voters decide if measures to limit or change that management are warranted. But the advocacy by the department on Question 1 was “exceptional,” in the words of the ethic commission’s Executive Director Jonathan Wayne.
In response to a request for information under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, the department said it spent $31,000 on materials and staff time related to Question 1. This included 165.5 hours of staff time, according to DIF&W records, although it said much of the work was done during unpaid time.
This level of involvement highlights why the ethics commission’s proposed law change, which the panel supported 4-1, is too narrowly tailored. The recommendation deals only with agency work on behalf of political action committees and ballot question committees, which, in turn, would have to disclose the value of this work as in-kind campaign contributions. (There would be no limit on the value of such contributions.) In the case of Question 1, DIF&W did a lot work — and spent department money — on its own, not through The Maine Wildlife Coalition, the ballot question committee registered to campaign against Question 1.
To be effective, the ethics commission should have gone with stronger recommendations made by Wayne. After concerns about DIF&W’s involvement in Question 1 were discussed at the commission’s November meeting, Wayne was asked to offer recommendations for the December meeting. His second suggestion — after the increased disclosure proposal — was to broaden the list of entities that would be required to file as ballot question committees to include public agencies. Under this scenario, DIF&W would have had to register as a ballot question committee and report its expenditures to the commission — and, hence, the public.
Beyond taxpayer money and time, there are good reasons to keep public employees — especially those who wear uniforms — out of campaign activity. Government officials in uniform and official vehicles convey a sense of power and authority to voters. The prospect that this sense of authority could improperly persuade voters is part of the reason state law forbids sheriffs and deputies from campaigning in uniform or while on duty.
At the federal level, the Hatch Act, which was passed in 1939, forbids federal employees from engaging in political activity while in uniform, while on duty and while using a government vehicle.
Maine has a version of the Hatch Act, but it applies only to candidate elections, not ballot question campaigns.
The ethics commission has done the important work of recommending stronger disclosure when a government agency is involved in campaign advocacy. Lawmakers should take this a step further and, at a minimum, require government entities to report campaign spending. A better course of action would be to prohibit it all together.