Why Maine’s Ethics Commission is Examining the State’s Revolving Door Laws

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Next week the Maine Ethics Commission will take up a proposal designed to put some distance between lobbyists on the one hand and elected legislators and state officials on the other.

The proposal stems from a complaint against a former Democratic legislator who was hired by the Maine AFL-CIO.

Maine Public political correspondent Steve Mistler explains the controversy, and more importantly the purpose of, what are often called revolving door laws.

Q: Can you explain what a revolving door is in state government?

So, the revolving door is a nifty metaphor to explain how legislators and state officials land jobs at lobbying firms, and vice versa.

But it doesn’t quite capture what revolving door laws are designed to guard against. And that’s a situation where public policy and laws are overly influenced by special interest groups.

Too much influence by groups like unions or corporations is always a concern in the Legislature and executive branch.

That’s why states have created revolving door laws that basically create a cooling off period for when a legislator or executive branch employee can take a lobbying job.

Maine is one of 34 states that have this type of law.

Q: Why is this cooling off period is necessary, in the minds of some?

If you’re a lobbying firm or a special interest group, access to policymakers can determine whether the issue you’re pushing has a chance of becoming law.

You can imagine lobbyists standing in the hallways of the State House pulling lawmakers aside to convince them that this idea or that is the best thing since sliced bread.

But your chances of convincing them is much better if you happen to have real connections and relationships with those same lawmakers. And that’s why former legislators and state officials sometimes make for pretty good lobbyists. They often know the people they’re trying to influence — maybe they’ve even served with them on a committee.

Those connections are worth a lot of money to lobbying firms, which is why you see so many former legislators and executive branch employees donning lobbying pins after their government jobs end. And it’s pretty lucrative work for those former legislators.

And that raises another concern: sitting legislators writing or sponsoring bills that they know could one day land them a job as a lobbyist.

Q: How common is it for these former lawmakers to get into lobbying?

We really don’t have any data to track how often this revolving door issue happens. But it’s common enough to anyone who’s spent time at the State House to take notice.

Q: Where does this leave us with former Democratic state Rep. Adam Goode?

Goode termed out of the Legislature last year. He’s now employed by the AFL-CIO, where he has done a lot of things considered lobbying under state law.

Now that would appear to be violation of the revolving door law, but there’s a catch: In Maine, only registered lobbyists can violate the revolving door law.

And you don’t need to register as lobbyist until you’ve met a certain threshold of lobbying — eight hours in a calendar month. Despite complaints from Republicans, Goode says he hasn’t reached that threshold. And until someone proves that he has, he’s technically operating in this loophole of the revolving door law.

Q: How’s that going over with the Ethics Commission, the agency that enforces the lobbying law?

The commission will review the complaint against Goode next Tuesday. In the meantime, ethics director Jonathan Wayne has proposed closing the loophole to prohibit all lobbying by former legislators and executive branch employees for a year — whether they’re registered lobbyists or not.

If the commission approves the change, it will go to the Legislature for consideration.

The audio version of this story originally contained an error. An unnamed LePage official used as an example of Republicans operating in the loophole of the revolving door law is exempted from that law.