Government Transparency Bill Gets Second Life In Maine Legislature

Nov 13, 2015

A state senator from Cape Neddick is hoping her initiative aimed improving government transparency will be revived next week. Democrat Dawn Hill will have to convince at least one Republican leader to support her efforts to enhance the flow of information between state agencies and the Legislature. The legislative council rejected Hill's bill last month along party lines, but the sponsor says there are new developments that warrant a second look.

The panel split five to five along party lines in Hill's bill, but Hill says recent events underscore the need for more transparency.

"Now I am having the opportunity to really talk to the Republican side and say listen, here's what this bill is all about, here are situations that I'm trying to avoid in the future," Hill says.

According to Hill, her bill request would create additional accountability within the executive branch by requiring all state agencies to file an annual report with the legislative committee of jurisdiction. The report would outline any possible federal grant opportunities. She points to examples this year, in which the LePage administration unilaterally decided not to apply for funds that help homeowners detect the presence of arsenic in their wells or for conservation funds available under the federal Forest Legacy program. And she says its also troubling that lawmakers on the appropriations committee learned about funding problems in a program that helps the blind and visually impaired from the public -- rather than from the administration.

"Many of the committees are never told whether there was a grant available or not; often they just sort of find out through the grapevine that something hasn't been applied for or something more obvious like the Forest Legacy where we know that year after year we applied and then all of a sudden we're not applying for it," Hill said.

Transparency and integrity continue to be front burner issues throughout Maine state government which was recently awarded an "F" grade in this year's State Integrity Investigation. Maine was singled out by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity for numerous practices -- including the shredding of documents at Maine's Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 . The Integrity report also cited the governor's habit of withholding funding for programs or agencies with whom he disagrees. David Sherwood, a contributing writer at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting who has reviewed Maine's integrity shortcomings says legislation such as Hill's would bring some clarity to the expectations of various branches of government when it comes to transparency. While much is made of what Democrats call LePage's so-called politics of personal destruction, Sherwood says these issues have the potential to emerge from any political entity.

"It could happen at any time to with any administration and that's why we need laws that mandate accountability and transparency, so that regardless of which party is in power, everyone is accountable," Sherwood says.

Republicans, including assistant House GOP leader Ellie Espling say that before the Legislative Council can get to details of Hill's transparency bill -- or any of the other appealed proposals --they must first determine whether it meets the definition of emergency legislation, which is required to admit new bills to the second regular session of the Legislature. And Espling says the council by necessity has to limit the number of new bills.

"To do our due diligence you know, we said no a lot the first go around," Espling says. "We look forward to hearing from people who want to appeal and it's all about getting the information to know is it truly an emergency, do we need to do that right now?"

The Legislative Council is scheduled to meet Thursday at the State House.