August 21, 2019
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Close lobbying loophole for former legislators

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, has introduced legislation aimed at tightening lobbying restrictions for former legislators.

Six years ago, Maine legislators acted unanimously to address the often-criticized “revolving door” between governing and lobbying by preventing former legislators from immediately returning to the State House as registered lobbyists.

The sensible 2013 law instituted a “cooling-off” period, nominally requiring former state lawmakers to wait a year before they can work as paid lobbyists. That general approach, used in many states across the country, was warranted given the potential for undue influence — real or perceived — that comes with officials moving back and forth between public service and paid advocacy within the same legislative body.

But unfortunately, as a recent Associated Press report highlights, there’s a glaring and unfortunate loophole with Maine’s existing cooling-off period: Former lawmakers can still do some paid lobbying in their first year out of office, as long as they don’t exceed eight hours of that activity each month.

“We have a situation where lawmakers can become lobbyists immediately for a corporation or special interest group, and don’t have to register and publicly disclose they’re a lobbyist,” said state Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who introduced a bill this session aimed at tightening the lobbying restrictions for former legislators. “It is a deep concern.”

Chenette’s initial proposal would have extended the cooling off period from one year to four — a potentially excessive change. The AP reported, based on information from the National Conference of State Legislatures, that these cooling-off periods across the country range from six months to two years.

The amended version of Chenette’s bill developed in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee would maintain the one-year prohibition while closing the 8-hour per month loophole.

This is a modest, needed reform. If we’re going to have a cooling off period for lobbying, it should mean something.

While the Maine Ethics Commission declined to take a position on Chenette’s proposed four-year delay on lobbying by former lawmakers, its executive director noted the commission’s unanimous support for closing the existing loophole.

“The commission does not have a position on whether to extend the waiting period to four years, as proposed by LD 76,” Executive Director Jonathan Wayne testified in January. “Nevertheless, in April 2017, the members of the Commission unanimously recommended that during the one-year waiting period, a former legislator should be prohibited from engaging in any paid lobbying on behalf of a client.”

That 2017 recommendation came after a Republican lawmaker asked the commission to investigate former Democratic Rep. Adam Goode of Bangor, who started working for the Maine AFL-CIO after being term-limited out of the Legislature in 2016. Goode acknowledged that his new job included lobbying, but said he was “well under 8 hours a month.”

The Ethics Commission eventually voted not to investigate the case. Its subsequent recommendation to bar all paid lobbying in the first year by a former legislator should serve as a wake-up call for both parties.

This is not — and should not be — a partisan issue. The Associated Press found that 22 former Maine lawmakers went on to become registered lobbyists in the past three decades — 14 of whom were Democrats and eight of whom were Republicans.

The Republican sponsor of the 2013 bill creating Maine’s year-long cooling-off period had the right approach when he said, as reported by the Morning Sentinel, that the effort was about good governance and not about any one individual.

That approach should hold true today. Lobbyists can play an important role in shaping informed, responsible public policy — and vilifying them collectively is unproductive and unwarranted. But reasonable restrictions on the “revolving door,” such as a total ban on paid lobbying by former lawmakers in their first year out of office, can help in the all-important effort to preserve public trust in government.



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