AUGUSTA, Maine – Wary of lobbyists calling signals from the sidelines, Maine is taking steps to ban text messages and e-mails to lawmakers in session as it becomes the latest state to address the ever-expanding use of electronic communications in statehouses.
Maine's proposed House of Representatives rule seeks to prevent abuse of "secret, instant communications" by lobbyists who closely monitor actions by legislators in session, said the sponsor, state Rep. Herbert Adams. Maine's proposed rule is one of farthest-reaching in the country, he said.
"It's an effort to deal with a serious problem that will only get worse if it's not dealt with now," said Adams, a Democrat. "Being a practical Yankee state, this was a good place to think it through first."
More than 30 states have in some fashion restricted the use of electronic devices, such as pagers, cell phones and desktop printers in legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states are concerned about possible ethical implications of such private, instant communication, while others are more concerned about decorum, Adams said.
Two states already have rules similar to what Maine is considering.
Colorado bars text messages in the House and Senate chambers, and West Virginia prohibits House members from receiving electronic messages during sessions from off the floor on any pending legislation.
In New England, Vermont and New Hampshire have set restrictions on electronic communication in legislative chambers.
Vermont allows House members to use laptops and other electronic equipment during sessions, including debates, but they must turn off the devices during roll-call votes.
Vermont Rep. David Deen, a member of the Rules Committee, said he didn't see a big difference between being bombarded with text messages during a debate and being buttonholed by a lobbyist.
"During debate you can get up and leave the floor and be surrounded by three different lobbyists on six different sides of an issue," he said.
In New Hampshire, House and Senate members aren't allowed to use personal computers and phones while another member is speaking in debate.
As Maine's rule was being fashioned, some House members chafed at what they see as a restriction on the free flow of information.
Rep. Janet Mills said the proposal impedes free speech, but she also opposes the measure for practical reasons.
"I have to admit I have asked for information from lobbyists," said the Democratic lawmaker. "I want to be able to continue that. I really do."
Adams said there's nothing new about rules that rein in lobbyists, whose past abuses have led to rules that banish them from the House chamber a half-hour before a session starts.
He said the proposed text-messaging rule targets not everyday citizens but only registered lobbyists, who have been known in the past to sit at representatives' desks during breaks and use legislators' personal stationery to jot notes.
Adams added that handwritten notes from lobbyists, which are typically hand-delivered by pages, would not fall under his restriction because they leave a written record.
A Republican lawmaker, Rep. Sawin Millett, said he could support the rule against electronic messages.
"I am of the old school. I believe legislators are sent here to think on their own," he said.
Maine's House rule won't apply to committees because they include members from both the House and Senate. Yet some of the most questionable uses of electronic communications have occurred during committee sessions, Adams said. He cited a case in which a lobbyist messaged a tough series of questions to a lawmaker while he was grilling a witness.
Lobbyist Ed Pineau, a former Maine legislator, said the proposed rule causes him little concern because he has no reason to send messages to the House Chamber.
"The decision's made before it hits the floor if you've done your work," he said.