This past legislative session there were many bills I put forth that didn’t make the cut. These are reforms I wholeheartedly believed in and will continue to push for moving forward if given the opportunity.
In 2004, Maine voters mandated that the state’s share of education funding be at 55 percent – pretty sure hovering around the current 46 percent isn’t what we all had in mind. Investing in education should be a priority for the Legislature. Even before the start of the session, I was told from numerous officials that we weren’t going to push for 55 percent. In fact, it wouldn’t be a possible priority for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless I charged on with my own proposal that would have ensured that the state meets its educational funding obligations. While it didn’t even make it to the House floor, I am hopeful that with a new governor, education funding will be more of a priority.
As a budding small business owner myself, focusing on supporting our small business community and improving the economy was another focus of this past session. I proposed expanding a successful tax credit to help businesses create new full time jobs. The tax credit I wanted to expand is called the Employment Tax Increment Financing. For an investment of $5.4 million over the past few years, the state already helped foster about 5,138 jobs in the private sector. Under the current incentive, a business must create five new full time jobs in order to qualify. My bill would have expanded this job-creating tax incentive to include those smaller businesses, like many around us locally, that create one or more new full time jobs. Instead of supporting my proposal, the taxation committee continues to support tax breaks that aren’t as effective, have a higher risk and waste taxpayer dollars.
Speaking of wasting taxpayer dollars, in order to pay for essential programs and services, I have a belief that we must first have the money available to pay for them. As a result, I proposed millions of dollars in reforms and cuts in wasteful spending. Those cuts included a bill that would have saved the state an estimated $11 million a year by streamlining state government. With Linda Valentino in the Senate and I in the House, we both pushed this initiative forward not just to save the state money, but also to make the entire system run more efficiently. Because of a last-minute political maneuver by our leadership, our bill wasn’t debated or properly voted on. Another proposal I had would have saved the state more than $300,000 each session by cutting excess legislative pay. When the bill was facing almost immediate defeat, I amended the bill in hopes of agreeing to a compromise. The amended bill would have just meant that legislators would be required to publically track the money they get for constituent services via the ethics commission very similarly to what is done with tracking campaign expenditures. This compromise was also shot down quickly.
In total, between sponsored and co-sponsored legislation, I came up with about $25 million in savings to our state. This was on top of the millions of savings I found within my own committee’s budget. This may seem like a drop in the bucket with the overall state budget being more than $6 billion, but imagine if every legislator did the same thing. Imagine every legislator coming up with savings in order to re-invest in education, small business incentives, or lower taxes. Of course that would mean legislators would have to actually read the budget prior to voting on it. What an interesting concept.
Reforming how Augusta operates isn’t just about trying to save money. Part of it is opening up the process to more transparency and accountability. This might be the journalist in me talking, but it is vitally important to have a government run in the sunshine. As a member of the state and local government committee, I supported initiatives to increase our broadcasting, both audio and video, of our legislative proceedings. In particular, online archiving of sessions of committee work and in both chambers. This way, no matter what your schedule is, you can see how your government is operating rather than trying to catch it live or seeing the recap in the media. Sadly, this too was shot down.
This last piece of reform is probably the one that got the closest to passing, though still a long way from actually becoming law. I brought Democrats, Republicans and advocates, including the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, to the table on a grand compromise for comprehensive campaign finance and PAC reform. The measure would have limited special interest influence in Augusta and the flow of money in campaigns. The compromise included capping PAC contributions to mirror traditionally financed candidates and would have closed the loophole in the Clean Elections system that allows Clean Elections candidates to run leadership PACS collecting money from special interests while running their personal campaigns with taxpayer money. Both sides had to give up a little in order to make this work. With the leadership on both the Republican and Democratic sides firmly against this, a mere 56 votes out of 151 was all I could muster, though that was the highest vote count for similar past measures in recent memory. The system is currently rigged against the average Mainer and instead public policy decisions often are made with the influence of the lobbyist, organization or corporation with the largest checkbook. My predecessor spent many years fighting this fight and I will continue to push this forward because it must be done in order to really start solving the long term problems facing this state.
While these common sense reforms didn’t become law, I believe having the debate and raising awareness for them can sometimes lay a foundation for successful passage in the not too distant future. Too much is at stake to stop now.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco and is the owner of Chenette Media LLC. You can follow his updates at www.justinchenette.com and at www.facebook.com/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco