Maine government should work for all Maine people — not just those who can afford the best lobbyist. Since I was first elected to the Legislature, I’ve been working to strengthen our ethics laws and policies to ensure that lawmakers are accountable to you, and that we truly are a government of, by and for the people.
Last year, I was proud to present and pass a package of bills to stop the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists and prevent politicians from profiting off political contributions through PACs. This was accomplished with unanimous bipartisan support. It showed when you have a good idea and the public is behind you, leaders can put differences aside to do what is right over what is easy. Now legislators will have to wait at least a year before they would be able to take up paid lobbying of any kind and legislators and candidates will be banned from using PACs as personal or business slush funds.
This year, the governor signed into law two additional measures I introduced to tackle lobbyist influence and ethics enforcement.
During times of turmoil and hardship, when people are in need, our community and frankly our state responds. As Mainers, we come together to give each other a leg up. What we’ve seen with this COVID-19 public health crisis is an outpouring of love, kindness, and support.
Starting last week, we handed out over 100 hot meals curbside to seniors with the excellent team at Saco Parks & Rec at the community center. Open to all Saco residents 50+. Looks like we’ll be doing this every Friday for the foreseeable future with proper health precautions. For these first two weeks, the featured business is the Golden Rooster. They served 100 lbs of their delicious American Chop Suey last week and this week will be shepherd’s pie. If you or someone you know needs a hot meal, please contact Parks and Rec to sign up: Amelia Meier email@example.com.
Age Friendly Saco led by Jean Saunders and Lynn Steed are distributing meals to area locations with large senior populations like the Paul Hazelton House. Saco’s Deli & Co. donated enough meals for 104 older Saco adults. With the help of other business donations, the Saco Food Pantry, and the Saco Police, they hope to continue to help distribute select meal drop offs. They are also working on establishing a phone tree where volunteers will be making phone calls checking in on seniors in our community. If you would like to help make phone calls, contact Age Friendly Saco at 207-710-5029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Old Orchard Beach VFW Post #7997 is providing seniors, veterans, those with disabilities, and people without resources drop off food and essentials. Call the VFW Post at 207-934-9910 anytime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Landry’s Shop & Save have donated bags for supply distribution. Needed supplies and resources will be delivered to your door and they’ll call to let you they arrived.
The Saco Food Pantry is available and willing to take anyone who needs food supplies. They have dropped the paperwork to get food. Your name, town or city, how many in your family is all they need. They will bring it to your car. If you don’t live in Saco it’s not a problem as they will serve all. Their hours are Monday-Friday 9 to 10:30 a.m. and the first Saturday of the month from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The pantry will also open the last Tuesday of each month from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Their number is (207) 468-1305. They are also willing to distribute food to your doorstep if you are unable to leave your home due to transportation or health issues.
Would you like to help out? Drop by weekday mornings from 9 to 10:30 a.m. with non-perishable food items or make an easy donation online www.sacofoodpantry.org. Volunteers are welcome and may contact Lynn at email@example.com. Their location is 67 Ocean Park Road.
With a void of leadership in Washington, the state is stepping up to provide relief.
Government has a core responsibility to help provide relief related to this public health crisis; to those being impacted financially, assist those in need of care, coordinate emergency response, and support our front-line health professionals. The Legislature passed a sweeping package in direct emergency response.
We expanded unemployment insurance benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19. We need the Feds to grant the ability for folks who previously weren’t paying into the system or didn’t qualify for benefits to be able to expand it to that population like self-employed, nonprofits etc. We are communicating with our Congressional delegation on that piece. Apply for unemployment using this link: http://reemployme.maine.gov.
We established a consumer loan guarantee program to help eligible Mainers access no-interest loans. This program will be administered by FAME and the loans will be given by banks and credit unions. The State guarantees the loans. The loans do not need to be repaid during a specified period of time. Maximum loan amount is $5,000. This can be used by anyone including self-employed individuals and others not covered under the unemployment system. Details can be found at FAMEMAINE.com.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) approved Governor Mills’ application for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans to help Maine businesses overcome any temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. The COVID-19 Relief Business Direct Loan Program provides FAME Direct Loans of up to $50,000 with special terms available to Maine-based businesses experiencing interruption or hardship due to COVID-19. Details also found at FAMEMAINE.com.
We created a COVID-19 response fund (with $11 million to start) to address unanticipated needs as they arise through January 15, 2021. Governor can tap these funds at anytime and can add additional funds as needed
The health and well-being of our children is critical to our future. This year in the Legislature, we passed vital laws to make sure our kids are safe and healthy both at home and in school.
One of my bills aimed at tackling the bullying issue in our schools passed with unanimous bipartisan support.
I introduced LD 1306 to review and overhaul Maine’s bullying laws because of the outcry from parents and students alike around this issue. As someone who was bullied all throughout school, I know the long-lasting pain that bullying can cause. I want to do everything I can to ensure young people feel safe in school, feel accepted, and feel like they can be true to themselves without fear of retribution from their peers. No parent should have to feel compelled to take a child out of a school because of bullying. If there are proper protocols in place for prevention and intervention, bullying will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
Homeownership is the entry point to the middle class and secures long term wealth. For many people, it provides a path towards retirement. One barrier to homeownership is a high property tax bill. Property taxes are the most regressive form of taxation.
Mainers need property tax relief, especially for seniors on fixed income and families working hard to get by.
When I was the Ranking Democrat on the Taxation Committee, I led the charge to increase the Homestead Exemption Program in 2017 and the Property Tax Fairness Credit in 2018.
This year, this past legislative session, we built on that success.
This was the most impactful legislative session in recent memory for advancing policies to protect our environment, promote a green energy industry, and fight climate change.
As a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee, I believe combating climate change is vital to preserving Maine’s natural resources-based economy and our overall way of life.
That’s why we passed laws to invest in local clean energy projects, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, stabilize energy costs and support good paying green energy jobs.
This past July, I spent almost an entire month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why? To take on a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The Victory Institute and the David Bohnett Foundation named me a leadership fellow and awarded me a full ride scholarship to graduate from the Senior Executives in State nd Local Government program at Harvard.
This 3-week leadership development program was transformational. It was a balance of traditional and hands-on learning experiences to help fellow public officials better address the concerns of our constituents and communities.
Since 2015, I’ve provided scholarships to students throughout our local community. My nonprofit scholarship fund at Thornton Academy and Old Orchard Beach High School has provided over $5,000 worth of scholarships so far. And we’re just getting started.
My objective with the scholarships has been to empower the next generation into leadership and service.
To ensure young people follow their passions along a path that best fits their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Sure, a $500 scholarship might not seem much when it comes to tackling the ever-increasing cost of higher education, but every little bit goes a long way.
It’s been an honor getting to meet talented and passionate students who are limitless in their pursuit of their education.
Every year, I gain a more positive outlook for the future because of them. They inspire me to do and be better.
We marked a new era this past session of the legislature. The statehouse was filled with something it hasn’t had in over eight years; civility, respect, and mutual cooperation.
I haven’t had the best situations to compare it to. The only Governor I’ve ever known while serving in the legislature has been Gov. Paul LePage.
Sadly, this is a bad example of what is required in a position of leadership. It was the epitome of fear-based politics that erodes the very fabric of the institution itself. I vividly remember Republican legislators being yelled at and bullied behind the scenes to vote with the Governor over common sense, values, and facts.
One even was brought to tears over the treatment and that was on the same side of the proverbial aisle. It threw a wrench into any hopes of bipartisanship agreements and instead replaced with daily unnecessary drama.
What a difference an election makes. This session was entirely a complete 180 thanks in part to the leadership of Gov. Mills, Senate President Troy Jackson, and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.
After pulling my first all-nighter since college, we worked nearly 24 hours straight until 6:45 a.m. on the final day of session to finish the people’s business. As I recovered from sleep deprivation, I’ve been reflecting over the positive outcomes over the last six months.
The largest voting block in Maine isn’t Democrats or Republicans. It’s unenrolled voters. While they could be considered independent, it largely means voters not affiliated with any one party.
The latest voter registration numbers, from September of last year, largely reflect long term trends in Maine. Around 35% of voters are unenrolled, 33% Democrat, and 27% Republican. While these numbers can change from one election to the next, this has largely been the case. Around a third, a third, and a third.
As a proud Democrat, and a progressive one at that, I am in strong support of unenrolled voters or independents being able to vote in our primary elections. Some of my colleagues think that allowing those who are unenrolled to vote in a Democratic Primary Election would somehow harm Democratic candidates or the party itself. I strongly disagree.
As a Democrat, I believe in expanding voting rights and access. Increasing voter participation and citizen engagement in the political process is a core democratic value. It’s in our party platform and as a party, we oftentimes talk about respecting the will of the voters and protecting our democratic institutions. We either want participation or we don’t. We either want to expand voting rights or we don’t. Picking and choosing makes us look indecisive and goes against our core beliefs. It’s because I’m a Democrat that I support opening up our primary, not in spite of. If you support automatic voter registration, early voting, Ranked Choice Voting, and other electoral reforms to improve our political system to make it easier not harder to vote, then you should consider supporting open primaries as well.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, ‘…the reality is that many unaffiliated voters lean strongly toward on side. If a party wants to broaden its reach for the general election, allowing independents to cast ballots in primaries could help with both party building and boosting turnout.”
Welcoming unenrolled voters into our big tent party will ultimately yield more benefits in electoral outcomes than if we continue to shun them from participating. Voter turnout is around 3%-10% on average higher in states that opened up their primaries versus states that have closed primaries.
Maine is the outlier in the entire country when it comes to how we treat our unenrolled neighbors. Under current law, unenrolled voters can only participate in a partisan primary if they register to vote or enroll in that particular political party. Individuals must wait 90 days before unenrolling. Maine is one of less than a dozen states with closed primaries. The rest of the country has some form of open primary system. This includes our New England neighbors New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. They must be on to something.
Moreover, we have individuals like U.S. Senator Angus King and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders who I would consider Democrats, but instead they choose to claim the independent title. Democrats back both of them consistently in their elections and in most cases don’t mount serious contenders against them because they caucus with the Democrats and vote reliably Democrat in their positions. This is not to say every independent is a Democrat though. There are plenty of conservative leaning independents as well. This example is to illustrate that not all ‘independents’ are moderate and they can’t be put into a box.
I am the lead co-sponsor to Rep. Kent Ackley’s open primaries bill. He is an independent who is my co-chair for the newly formed Democracy Reform Caucus we founded together. The bill is LD 211, An Act To Open Maine's Primaries and Permit Unenrolled Voters To Cast Ballots in Primary Elections. His bill is a common-sense measure that seeks to create semi-open primaries. Semi-open primaries refers to a system where those who are not enrolled in a political party can select which party to vote in during the Primary Election without having to actually register in that party. This allowance would not be for those already enrolled in a political party. So, we aren’t opening up Democratic Primaries to Republicans and we aren’t opening up Republican Primaries to Democrats. This is semi-open, just allowing unenrolled voters to vote in the primary of their choosing.
In Maine, polling has shown that between 75-80% of Maine voters support moving to a semi-open primary. With our Senate district reflecting the very same breakdown of party affiliation as the statewide numbers, an entire third of my constituents cannot participate in an election they help pay for. Ahead of 2020, I think any voter wishing to vote Democratic should be encouraged and welcomed with open arms. Every citizen deserves a right to vote in our elections, not just ones dictated by political parties.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, and a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, Marketing Director of the Scamman/Valentino Real Estate Team, and is Vice President of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at www.JustinChenette.com
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco