From raising the minimum wage to legalizing recreational marijuana, and even the extraction of far-away tar sands oil, the battles over issues of national interest are increasingly being fought at the local level. Just how vociferously they are being fought, and just who is fighting them, however, remains unclear.

That’s because lobbyists attempting to influence policy decisions in Maine’s cities and towns are not required to report their activities. When a bill goes before the Legislature or onto the governor’s desk, disclosure laws mean the public knows which corporations and organizations are interested. But when the same issue is taken up by a municipality, the trail goes dark.

That’s what happened in Portland, which last year became Maine’s ground zero for the national debate over the minimum wage. When a bill for a statewide increase was before the Legislature, 76 reports were filed showing lobbyists from 26 interest groups weighed in on one side or the other.

After Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, the effort for an increase moved to Maine’s largest city, where the lack of disclosure rules means the public has no idea who is pushing the City Council for a policy change that would have an enormous impact on many employees and businesses.

Much of the same happened in South Portland.

The city is the eastern terminus for a pipeline that one day could deliver controversial tar sands oil from western Canada. An ultimately unsuccessful referendum to ban all oil shipments to the South Portland waterfront — and thus throw into question the utilization of the entire pipeline — drew intense interest from the oil industry and national environmental groups. We know that more than $800,000 was spent on lobbying and advertising in the campaign — most of it in opposition — because Maine law requires reporting when a community of more than 15,000 residents considers a referendum question.

But once the issue moved to the City Council, the reporting was no longer required. As councilors considered and passed an ordinance blocking tar sands oil from being shipped through the city, the law says the public has no right to know who had their ear.

That’s problematic, particularly now. With the federal government operating largely at a stalemate, national issues are being decided state by state, and town by town.

That can be seen in the massive increase in outside spending on state legislative races and referenda. And it can be seen in the increased interest in local questions.

On issues such as marijuana legalization, local referenda are being used to build momentum for wider victories. On issues such as tar sands and fracking, they are being used to strategically block an opponent.

When these issues are on a ballot, or being considered statewide, disclosure laws let us know who is influencing the debate. The process should be just as transparent when it happens locally.

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