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Maine Lawmaker Proposes to Ban Union Campaign Contributions
02/13/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Democrats were able to regain control of the Republican-led Maine Legislature last fall by strategically picking their political battlefields and spending heavily in targeted districts. A sizeable chunk of the money spent to influence those campaigns was raised by public employee unions, such as the Maine Education Association and the Maine State Employees Association. But a Republican lawmaker says it's a conflict of interest for public workers unions to contribute to candidates for state office, and has submitted legislation to prohibit the practice.

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Some Democrats are saying privately that Republican state Rep. Peter Johnson's bill is just a case of sour grapes. Money raised by public employees' unions, including the Maine Education Association and the Maine State Employees Association, played a role in the defeat of many Republicans candidates.

But the Greenville lawmaker says there's a lot more to his bill than losing the majority at the State House. "What I'm proposing is correcting a clear case of conflict of interest," Johnson said, as he made a case for his bill at a public hearing before the Legislature's Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs.

Johnson says he has felt for many years that there's something wrong with a system that permits public workers to spend money on the campaigns of politicians who are making decisions affecting the employees' livelihoods.

"Public sector unions can contribute to candidates who subsequently can negotiate paying benefits for those who elect them, or in other roles, sponsor and vote on legislation that favors a particular union, at the detriment of the general public," Johnson said.

Paul Johnson, an Oakland resident, testified that the current practice that permits state employees and teachers unions to influence the outcome of elections is troubling. Both unions demonstrated considerable clout last year and delivered a combined campaign spending punch of more than $400,000.

Johnson - who says he is no relation to the state representative sponsoring the bill - says that kind of spending undermines the public trust.

"This trust is especially important when it comes to legislation related to state employees and the operation of state government," Johnson said. "In this regard, Maine citizens should have no reason to believe that the actions of their elected representatives have been unduly influenced by campaign contributions they received from public employee unions."

During the hearing, Republican state Sen. Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls, questioned Maine AFL-CIO Executive Director Matt Schlobohm - who spoke against the bill - about the alleged conflict issue.

Mason: "Does the union have a position on if that is a conflict of interest?"

Schlobohm: "Politics is rife with lots of various interests. Do our members and the unions that represent them try and support their interests? Absolutely. Does Cianbro, does the Chamber of Commerce, does every entity? So I don't see it as any different from any other entity supporting its interests."

Johnson's bill, however, may be in trouble before it even gets to the committee deliberation stage. Zachary Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says the proposed legislation is unconstitutional and that the arguments against it have been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in clear terms.

"Restrictions or limits on people's contributions to political campaigns are analyzed as if they were a restriction or prohibition on certain speakers or certain types of speech," Heiden said.

House Committee chair Rep. John Tuttle of Sanford says if the committee's own analyst agrees with Heiden, Johnson's bill will go no further.

In the interest of disclosure, some Maine Public Broadcasting Network employees are represented by the Maine Education Association.



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