Say it with me: Title 1, Section 1015.
That is the Maine law that prohibits state legislators from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists and their employers while the Legislature is in session.
It is a perfectly reasonable, albeit highly technical, law. And its existence also helps color the ongoing dispute over the return of the Maine Legislature.
Campaign finance law is a morass of form over substance. Candidates have countless hoops to jump through, their “leadership PACs” — pools of money from which would-be House speakers and Senate presidents — have some as well, while outside groups are awash in so-called dark money filling our airwaves and Facebook feeds with pablum.
Five years ago, a group called Mainers for Accountable Elections led a campaign to enact 2015’s Question 1. Part of the legislation’s lofty title was to “improve disclosure.” How’s that working out? Form over substance.
Part of the gamesmanship surrounds donation caps on a “per election” basis. But a primary election — even if it is uncontested — counts as a freestanding election for fundraising purposes. So the very next day after a primary, new limits spring into being for November’s general election.
State GOP legislators wanted to return to session weeks ago. It is noteworthy that had the Legislature returned to work prior to the primary on July 14, both Democrats and Republicans would have been prohibited from taking lobbyist money for the state primary election while they were in session.
Call me cynical, but it is easy to think that public policy was not the only consideration when House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson began the process to bring the Legislature back into session. Waiting until July 14 — election day — to send out the poll asking legislators to return seems all too conveniently timed from where I’m sitting.
Meanwhile, Gideon is under attack from Sen. Susan Collins and her supporters, promoting the online hashtag #saradidnothing. In mid-March, the Legislature quickly passed a bipartisan bill and — prudently — hightailed out of town. But that was over four months ago; a lot has happened since then.
So, with this backdrop, Gideon and Jackson decided to trigger the constitutional process to recall the Legislature. Elected Republicans, despite having pressed hard to return in weeks prior, refused to acquiesce. And they have taken a drubbing in the media for it.
The GOP’s stated rationale was a desire to severely limit legislative business to the immediate budgetary crisis — a $500 million-plus shortfall — and COVID-critical issues. Gideon and Jackson would not commit to such a focused effort.
Thus, Republicans used the only tool the minority has; a “no” vote (or no vote at all) on the question to return. Once the Legislature returns to session, all bets are off. The Democratic majority could do pretty much whatever it wants within the bounds of the Maine Constitution. A public pronouncement from Democratic leaders was the only hook the GOP could hope to set to ward off the majority from potentially running amok.
But conspicuously absent from the political warfare is another provision of law: Article V, Part First, Section 13 of the Maine Constitution. Gov. Janet Mills has the power, without regard to legislative opinion, to call the Legislature back to work “on extraordinary occasions.” She even can tell them where to meet if the normal location is too “dangerous from [a] contagious sickness.”
The reality is that Maine’s elected branches of government are firmly in the control of Democrats. Mills, Gideon and Jackson seem to be treading lightly, as navigating the COVID-19 path is practically and politically perilous. Republicans’ sole power is essentially to make noise and draw attention. But if Democrats really believe the Legislature must return, all they need do is have Mills say so.
That she has not done so is conspicuous by its absence. Almost as conspicuous as the speed with which Gideon and Jackson moved to bring the Legislature back after the primary election.
Hopefully public policy and prudent management — and not political posturing and calculation — will lead the Legislature back into session and out again quickly. Maine deserves a strong, focused update to its COVID-19 response plan.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.