AUGUSTA — House Democrats on Thursday turned back a Republican effort to investigate the chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee for paid work he did in support of a ballot initiative that raised taxes on wealthy Mainers.

In a 77-64 party-line vote, majority Democrats rejected a request to convene the House ethics committee to investigate whether Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, violated House rules when he accepted pay from a political action committee for the work.

The ballot question, which voters narrowly approved, tacks a 3 percent surcharge on households earning more than $200,000 to increase funding to public schools.

The executive director of the state ethics commission, which oversees campaign finance and election law, said Tipping sought the agency’s advice before taking the job and that his work for the PAC, Stand Up for Students, did not appear to violate conflict-of-interest laws for legislators.

Tipping was paid just over $10,000 by the PAC, according to campaign finance reports. His job was to advocate on behalf of the bill with local municipal officials.

House Speaker Sara Gideon named Tipping chairman of the taxation committee in January. He previously served on the Legislature’s education committee.

Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, who requested a special order to call up the ethics committee, said she was disappointed that Democrats used their majority to quash an investigation. Espling said it was needed to clarify ethics rules for House members.

She also said a review of Tipping’s situation would help determine whether House ethics rules or state laws dealing with campaign finance and elections need tightening.

“We are asking that this be cleared up, both ethically under the House Code of Ethics, which (Democrats) denied today, and then if there is a process by which we need to look into the existing ethics laws, then so be it,” Espling said.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, voted for the probe.

“At the core of this, this is not about Rep. Tipping,” Fredette said. “This, to me, is about public trust in our institutions today.”

A QUESTION OF PUBLIC TRUST

Fredette said public trust in government is already low and even the appearance of conflict by an elected official erodes that trust further.

“And when you have this sort of a situation, where PACs are contributing to legislators who are receiving tax money to run publicly and are then appointed to chair a very powerful committee, that impacts the public trust,” Fredette said. “And for Democrats to sit back and say ‘No harm, no foul, we are not going to look at this’ – I think that’s very damaging to that public trust.”

But Democrats argued that Tipping had cleared his activities with the ethics commission and that Republicans were wasting time trying to investigate a lawmaker who had done nothing wrong.

House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said Maine’s part-time Legislature includes people from many professions who are assigned to committees based on their work expertise.

“In this chamber, lobstermen and fishermen inform marine policy, teachers shape education and classroom rules, farmers vote on agricultural issues, lawyers vote on laws impacting all of their clients, pharmacists, doctors, nurses and health care workers guide our decisions on health and human service votes on areas related to insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare,” Herbig said.

“Business owners vote on wage regulations, taxes and environmental issues that impact their bottom line. … Members who own companies who receive state contracts vote in this chamber and veterans vote on bills that impact their services and benefits.”

Herbig said individual lawmakers’ expertise in various policy areas is why Maine’s Legislature functions at all. She said conflicts of interest are “kept in check by the ethics commission.”

But Republicans said Tipping’s paid work for a PAC trying to raise taxes on the wealthy raises questions about his objectivity as chairman of the taxation committee.

The Maine Republican Party has also challenged Tipping’s committee assignment and filed Freedom of Access Act requests seeking communications between Tipping and Gideon. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has also called on Tipping to resign.

“Some people say it’s not corruption, it’s just business as usual, but I call that the utmost corruption,” LePage told a talk radio host in February. “You are turning your back on the constituents you are supposed to serve.”

‘THE POLITICAL CIRCUS’

Tipping, who recused himself from the vote on Espling’s special order Thursday, said later that trying to provide better funding for schools and create a fairer income tax system are issues his supporters care about.

“The promises I made to my constituents are to come here and fight for a strong public education system, to fight for a strong, clean environment, fight for a fair tax code,” Tipping said. He called the push for an ethics review a distraction.

“Today I’m happy we can turn back to the real work of the Legislature, rather than the political circus,” Tipping said.

Rob Poindexter, a spokesman for House Republicans, said several Republican lawmakers were considering bills to prevent lawmakers from working for political action committees. Drafts were not yet prepared. Republican leaders said they were unsure what steps they might take beyond that.

Also on Thursday, Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, Senate chairman of the Taxation Committee, submitted a bill that would undo the 3 percent public school surcharge.

Dow’s bill would instead increase funding for public schools through additional sales tax revenue expected to come from recreational marijuana sales, Airbnb rentals and purchases from online retailer Amazon.

Dow and other Republican opponents of the tax hike say it will hurt Maine’s small businesses and drive well-paid professionals such as doctors and dentists from the state.

“We have heard the people’s message loud and clear in Augusta; funding our schools will continue to be a top priority,” Dow said in a prepared statement.

“But we can’t reach this goal off the backs of Maine’s employers and small businesses.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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