Maine has a citizen legislature, and probably always will. While the current legislative schedule — a minimum of six months for the first year, four months for the second — is lengthy compared to many other small states, it’s doubtful Maine will ever have a need for full-time lawmakers.

No other state of comparable size has a professional legislature, and in New England only Massachusetts explicitly pays for full-time work. This “citizen” status, however, can lead to many questions about what’s appropriate.

One example is a current proposal, L.D. 76, sponsored by Sen. Justin Chenette (D-Saco), which would make effective a one-year ban on former legislators acting as paid lobbyists. Chenette originally wanted a four-year “cooling off” period, but the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs instead amended it just to eliminate a “safe harbor” provision that allowed up to eight hours of lobbying a month under a 2013 law that enacted the first such ban.

It seems a reasonable proposal, conforming the actual statute to public expectations of what a “cooling off” period should mean. I remember feeling queasy when I discovered that, early in the Baldacci administration, two departing committee chairs, one from the Health and Human Services Committee and the other from the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, immediately went to work for, respectively, a major hospital and major health insurer.

Yet questions about livelihood and potential conflicts of interests are hardly confined to lobbying, which, after all, is relatively rare. Of the hundreds of lawmakers who have passed through Augusta over three decades, it appears that less than two dozen have returned as lobbyists.

As state government enlarged its scope in the 1970s and 1980s, questions about professional associations and employment became prominent. Were lawmakers benefiting, financially, from holding office? If so, what should the rules be?

These concerns were potentially far more consequential than lobbying, since aside from those fully retired almost all legislators have some earned income other than their legislative salaries.

One early incident was when Gov. Joe Brennan proposed teacher bonuses to upgrade their chronically low pay. Several teachers were then serving in the Legislature, and the attorney general ruled — correctly, I believe — that unless a teacher (or lawyer, or pharmacy owner, or a dozen other positions) benefited individually or disproportionately from a bill, it was ethically appropriate to vote on it.

That hasn’t ended the talk, of course. Many wonder whether legislators with businesses are “cashing in” professionally.

Since Augusta is the capital, and its senator and House members represent thousands of state employees, the scuttlebutt can be particularly thick.

I can recall friends insisting that Roger Katz, who represented Augusta in the Senate from 2010-18, and before him Sumner Lipman, a House member from 1991-94 who then ran for governor, finishing second in the 1994 Republican primary, must somehow be using their offices for profit.

It no doubt heightened suspicion that Katz and Lipman were partners in the same law firm, but I never saw any evidence they mixed legal with legislative business. Truth be told, they probably lost at least as as many clients as they gained; especially since by the time Katz served, Maine politicians were becoming reviled almost as often as their counterparts in other states had been for years.

In Augusta, Rep. Justin Fecteau owns a downtown business and Sen. Matt Pouliot has a real estate firm. Still, we’re a long, long way from the days when the president of Bangor Hydro, the state’s second-largest electric utility, could simultaneously serve as Maine Senate president, as actually happened in the 1950s.

There are always going to be exceptions, but overall conflicts of interest are remarkably rare in Maine’s Legislature, and graft almost unknown. When it does occur, it’s more likely the legislator’s, or former legislator’s, private business that’s involved, rather than his public service.

What may be more helpful, in the long run, is curtailing our expectations of our part-time lawmakers, who have a tough time balancing their professional, let alone familial, commitments.

If we moved to truly annual sessions, four months each year, it would be far easier to hold a regular job, and to separate it from legislative service through leaves of absence. Recently, sessions have extended well into the summer, and, absurdly, the Legislature was still in session last August, which was supposed to be one of the “short session” years.

In my experience, most lawmakers are dedicated to their public duties. Having clear and effective rules of conduct is necessary, but understanding that legislators have lives, too, is equally important.

 

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

 

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Justin Fecteau and Sen. Matthew Pouliot were co-owners of a downtown Augusta business. It has been corrected.)

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