Since I’ve been a member of the House of Representatives in Augusta, I’ve railed against what I’ve seen as blatant attempts by lobbyists and special interest groups to bribe legislators and influence policy decision-making. It’s an ongoing fight. While sometimes I feel like it’s a losing battle, there are glimmers of hope that we can break through, like the passing of PAC and campaign finance reform this past session.
But something I witnessed this year that really bothered me was the amount of preferential treatment lobbyists had over elected officials. While I don’t consider myself any more important than any other resident in the state, I do place legislators on a higher pedestal than lobbyists. I know they are just doing their jobs, but I really dislike what they stand for – representing a corporation for the highest bidder without regard for its impact on others.
I like to think of a legislator as the people’s lobbyist. We are elected to represent the greater good of the public. The seat I sit in is Saco’s. It’s yours. I take that responsibility very seriously.
Part of the state budget process is a wait and see game. Waiting on the final details of the compromise that has been ironed out by members of the Appropriations Committee. Once the budget is finalized, both sides, the Republican caucus and the Democratic caucus, meet to go through it and educate their members. One thing that is always missing is an actual copy of the budget.
During my first term, I got my hands on a physical copy of the budget, totaling well more than 700 pages long. Some of my colleagues and even staff would ask why I was reading the budget document. This was perplexing. Shouldn’t everyone be reading it? After all, part of our job is to make informed decisions, especially considering the fact the price tag is well over $6 billion.
Aside from people not reading the budget, things got messier in my now second term. As usual, feeling like the odd man out, I was on the hunt to get a copy of the state budget. First stop, the revisor’s office. This is where bill language gets drafted, revised and printed. I was told they didn’t have copies to hand out, but suggested I visit the document room down the hall. Alas! They had copies of the budget to hand out. To my amazement, they refused to give me one. I never play the legislator card, but in this case I was pretty upset they had copies right on the table. Who were these copies for if not for the people voting on the very thing itself? Apparently, the document room only gives out copies of the budget and other items to lobbyists and special interest groups. Particularly those that pony up a check. I literally couldn’t believe it. I was infuriated. I even pulled out my checkbook and asked “How much?” “I’ll buy it,” I said. “I’ll write you a check right now to be on the same level as a paid lobbyist.” They still refused.
It took me going to four more offices on multiple floors to get a copy of the budget. This is why our system is broken. It highlights several issues. If it’s this hard to track down a copy, clearly not enough legislators actually read it. Instead they rely on the talking points handed out from their party’s leadership. Sure, bulleted handouts are nice as a refresher, but you still need to really know what’s in something before you actually vote on it. That only comes from reading the original document.
It also highlights how lobbyists run the show. It should not be easier for a lobbyist to obtain information than a legislator. It mind boggles me that this level of dysfunction can be allowed to occur.
I am trying to change the culture. Trying to change how we do business in Augusta. The first step is flagging it for you and getting people to admit we actually have a problem. On a small level, this is just the surface. I hope to continue to hold my colleagues and hold the establishment accountable by shining a spotlight on what really goes on in the hallowed halls of our capitol building.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/ JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco