Cleaning up Maine's sleaze

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 18, 2009

A bill this legislative session, LD 607, sponsored by Senator Debra Plowman, R-Penobscot County, would move back the beginning date for reporting all independent expenditures to Labor Day, instead of 35 days before the election. This reform would require many more such expenditures to be reported and thus would trigger more matching funds for publicly financed Clean Election candidates. Representative Pamela Trinward, House chairwoman of the committee handling the bill, Legal and Veterans Affairs, says she is "optimistic" the bill will pass. But even though Trinward is a Democrat, the bill has mostly Republican sponsors, and the Democrats control the Legislature.

The virtually unregulated state PACs (political action committees) constitute another growing threat to "clean" elections. In addition to supporting ballot measures and lobbying, PACs finance candidates through independent expenditures, contributions to privately financed candidates, or donations to other PACs. These groups can raise unlimited amounts of money, and there's no restriction on who can donate to them. Corporate sources and lobbyists provide many of the donations. Candidate-oriented PACs are often set up by groups of legislative leaders or by individuals seeking legislative leadership posts who expect the candidates they help, if elected, to vote for them.

Candidate PACs get into the big money. In 2008, the Senate and House Democratic campaign committees together raised and spent more than $1 million. Democrats Elizabeth Mitchell and Hannah Pingree spent, respectively, $65,000 and $57,000 from their personal PACs. Mitchell has since become Senate president and Pingree House speaker. According to Ann Luther, co-chairwoman of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, Maine is the only state in New England and one of only 13 in the nation that doesn't regulate candidate PACs.

This session, Representative Trinward is sponsoring LD 583, which would restrict the amount an individual or an organization can give to a candidate PAC during a two-year election cycle to $1000 (with aggregate contributions limited to $10,000), limit the totals PACs can give to candidate PACs to $25,000, and prohibit for-profit corporations from contributing to candidate PACs.

It will be "challenging" to get this bill passed, says Luther, because of resistance by legislative leadership.

Loose ethics laws
Maine's government ethics laws were mostly put in place in the 1970s, and since then many loopholes have opened up.

Under the "sunshine" laws, lobbyists have to reveal who they work for, how much money their employers spend on lobbying, and what bills they seek to influence. As of 2007, they are also required to total up money spent on contacting executive officials about legislation. But lobbyists are not required to disclose who they contact (or anything else) concerning the rules agencies write and the contracts they give out — each of which is as important as legislation in who benefits from government actions. Undisclosed meetings with department officials mean informal deals can be hidden. Those deals are unlikely to benefit the public at large. Three-quarters of the hundreds of lobbyists active in Augusta represent private corporations or their trade associations.

One of the reasons legislators may not be keen to pass restrictions on lobbyists is that lobbying is a lucrative career for some of them after their legislative service. And here another ethics-law loophole gapes open: most states ban former lawmakers from lobbying for a year or two. But not Maine.

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