I often talk about the influence of lobbyists at the statehouse in Augusta. For the most part my advocacy on this topic centers around reducing the role money plays with lobbyist influence, but we can’t ignore the culture that we’ve allowed to be created in the hallowed halls.
Pay-for-play is common practice and at this point is pretty common knowledge. The special interest group and corporate lobbyist with the largest checkbook has the most direct influence over public policy decision making. What isn’t as known, is how lobbyists are treated versus legislators.
I don’t expect much being a legislator but obtaining a hard copy of the state budget is something that shouldn’t take an act of God. I’ve had the same experience in the Senate that I had in the House when it comes to getting to read the budget before voting on it. Oftentimes the budget is negotiated in secret, behind closed doors, and unless you are in positions of leadership, the final version of the budget isn’t released until just a mere few hours before we are scheduled to vote on it. Like clockwork, I ask around for a physical copy. I’m old fashion that way. I like to highlight, make notes and write on it. I’m the same way with reading books. There’s something about holding it. It doesn’t surprise me that staff at the statehouse would prefer everyone to read the budget online. It saves paper and money. No problem with that. What I have a problem with is playing second fiddle to lobbyists. I kid you not, physical copies of the budget, which total in the 700 to 800s, are reserved for lobbyists only. Not only that, when I as a legislator ask for a copy, I am refused because I’m not a lobbyist. Funny because I thought I was the one who had to vote on the budget, not the lobbyist. Lobbyists shouldn’t have an easier time getting copies of any legislation, budget or not. I complained enough to enough people to finally get a copy, but that’s not how it should work.
Did you know that lobbyists get security clearance? While the rest of the public has to go through a security screening reminiscent of the airport, lobbyists just sail right through with a free pass. The top lobbyist makes upward of $300,000 a year. Legislators average $11,000 a year. That should tell you all you need to know about the power dynamics at the statehouse and who really has the power. There is an air of arrogance to lobbyists; a level of expectation that they deserve what they get. They expect when they stop legislators in the hallway that you listen. They expect you to take meetings with them. They expect you to attend their fancy dinners and events.
What’s worse is the cycle of former legislators becoming lobbyists and lobbyists becoming legislators. It’s a never ending revolving door that makes it hard to tell the difference between someone supposedly fighting for the public good and those being paid off to represent a position, corporation or cause.
Lobbyists, especially of the corporate kind, even write legislation. While only legislators themselves can officially file bills, I’ve seen firsthand a complete abuse of the legislative process. Lobbyists should not have the ability to draft bills that directly benefit their bottom line and the corporate interests they serve. When legislators don’t know what their bill does and has lobbyists come up to explain them in front of committees, that’s usually a red flag that they didn’t come up with it. As a member of the Taxation Committee, I had a few recent examples. There was a so-called affordable housing bill where the bill’s sponsor didn’t even bother showing up to the numerous hearings. You know who did show up? The high paid lobbyists hired by one developer who wrote the bill to benefit themselves. After witnessing what happened with the corporate welfare handouts to General Dynamics, I had to do something. Here we had a single corporation drafting legislation where they are the sole beneficiary of millions of taxpayer dollars and my colleagues don’t bat an eye. The legislative process is being hijacked and I’m not going to sit by and allow it to continue.
I recently filed a bill to prevent outside, big money interests from writing legislation. The bill would ban any registered lobbyist or corporation from drafting bills on behalf of lawmakers. If we are ever going to have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we first need to root out a cancer that’s eroding away the very fabric of our governmental institutions, the symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and legislators.
Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president of Saco Main Street. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or follow updates at www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco