I believe in the concept of shared sacrifice. When people are in need, we should help – not as a simple hand out, but as a way of securing a better future for themselves and subsequently our entire community benefits. This is why it angers me to see the wealthy get tax break after tax break and the rest of us seem to get footed with the bill. When state dollars become scarce and the threat of tax increases looms, it is important to preserve the safety nets while trying to find cost-savings in areas to lessen the burden.
This leads me to the idea of shared sacrifice. Legislators, myself included, get paid well below minimum wage when taking into account the actual time spent in the position. I, like so many middle class families today, work multiple jobs, including running a small business to stay afloat. On average, legislative salaries average to a little over $11,000 a year during a two-year term. This is why it was particularly difficult for me to put in a bill to essentially cut my own pay, but my commitment to serve you while staying true to my core principles led me away from personal need and instead to the needs of the state as whole.
Aside from the salary, legislators receive what’s called a constituent services allowance; $1,500 a year for representatives and $2,000 a year for senators. This is a small fund supposed to be used to help your elected officials reach out and connect with you. I will admit it does come in handy, but not something I would deem essential to fund in the laundry list of priorities.
When education funding is still not at the 55 percent requirement as mandated by voters, when essential services are cut and when vital infrastructure projects are still needed to maintain our aging roads and bridges, it pains me to see money being spent on things that aren’t extremely important. It isn’t that constituent allowance services aren’t important. It is nice to have resources at your disposable to communicate with you, but I’d rather put that money to better use and it adds up quick. If my bill had passed, we could have saved nearly $600,000 every two years. That’s a lot of tax dollars being used to essentially do what could be done for free.
There are lots of ways to stimulate dialog, including through this column, through Facebook, Twitter, a website, holding forums, etc. I do not buy the rhetoric from the critics that this is an essential program. If we had money to spare, properly invested in education, and didn’t cut services to our seniors, then I would say sure, let’s keep it. Given the dynamics we are in, it makes sense to hold off on legislators receiving what I would label as “bonus checks” to pad re-election efforts. I wished my colleagues would have seen the benefit. The bill was shot down so fast that if it hadn’t been for the fact I was on the committee that took the bill, it wouldn’t have even made it to the House floor for a vote.
The sad part in this saga is that I even compromised in hopes of getting some version of my bill passed. I ended up with just putting in requirements to track where the money was being spent. Right now legislators do not have to log where and how they spend their constituent allowance money. It gets automatically deposited in your personal bank account and could literally be spent however the legislator chooses, even though it’s supposed to be just for constituent services. Why not publicly track where the money is going, much like what is done in campaigns? I could be a typical wide-eyed and naive 22-year-old and believe everyone is good intentioned and spends the money how it was intended. The difference is, I was educated and trained as a journalist. As a journalist early in my career, I learned to challenge the status quo to get to the real story. That’s what I’m bringing to you now; the real story of a dire need of transparency and accountability in state government regardless of your party affiliation. You know you are on the right track when you get pressure to abandon your own bill because the higher ups don’t like it.
As long as I am serving in Augusta, I will push for these kind of common sense reforms to help save money, invest in essential programs, and create an era of accountability long needed in the hallowed halls of our capital building.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco and is the CEO of Chenette Media LLC. You can follow his updates online at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/ justinchenette, and Twitter.comm/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco