Republican Charlie Summers has pinned his campaign for the U.S. Senate on a vow to improve the economy and create jobs on a national level the way he says he has on a state level.
As Maine’s secretary of state, Summers added a $50,000 “Small Business Advocate” in his office that he says on his campaign website shows how “investing in small businesses will create jobs and strengthen our economy.”
If elected, Summers states he will “introduce legislation that will create a national small business advocate, just like the one I successfully lobbied for in Maine who has already saved Maine businesses from undue state regulators.”
But a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting examination of the business advocate’s own records tells a much more mixed story of the effectiveness of the new position.
While Summers boasts the program is a job creator, in the 10 months it has been in operation, records show few, if any, new jobs can be directly attributed to the work of the business advocate.
For seven weeks this spring and summer, from June 1 to July 27, the advocate did not have a single open case, according to weekly activity reports.
The records also reveal the advocate claims credit for solving problems that others solved and suffers from legal restrictions that handicap his effectiveness.
Dan Billings, chief legal counsel to Gov. Paul LePage, was critical of the position on As Maine Goes, the popular web forum for Maine Republicans: "My point is that someone should look at whether the Small Business Advocate is actually making a difference or just taking credit for cases that were on the way to resolution anyway,” he wrote on May 13.
Responding to the Center’s findings, Summers said, “We’ve met with some early successes in this but I think to actually quantify, in the longer term you’ll need a few years of data. Do I think it’s a success, do I think it’s a success that the state government now has a position of someone who can act independently of the executive. Yeah, I think that’s a success.”
One of Summers’ opponents in the June GOP Senate primary noted the contradiction of a limited-government candidate expanding his own government agency.
On his campaign Facebook page, Rick Bennett, former president of the Maine Senate, noted “the irony of trying to solve a problem created by government with more government.”
Summers was sworn into office in January 2011, shortly after the Republican sweep of the State House in 2010. His position is a constitutional office elected by the Legislature.
His election followed two terms in the state Senate, nine years as Sen. Olympia Snowe’s state director, a stint as the region’s Small Business Administration head, and three failed campaigns for Congress. He is a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Summers, Democrat Cynthia Dill and independent Angus King are running for Snowe’s open seat.
Summers proposed the small business advocate to “assist businesses when established agency procedures fail to resolve problems or disputes,” as he told a legislative committee.
Summers’ proposal passed and in October, 2011, he appointed Jay Martin of Old Town to the job. Martin started work on Oct. 6, 2011.
Previously, Martin ran his own consulting firm, Write It Right, where he helped businesses write grant applications and proposals and performed related services.
Martin says his office has received 117 cases and has "closed" 22 of them. Three cases are what he called “pending,” while 41 were referred to other departments, 37 never opened and 14 deemed “outside scope” of the office.
The cases range from a drug store fighting a fine over an unlicensed pharmacist to a Portland business battling with regulators about its wastewater discharges.
Martin typically asks businesses to fill out an intake form, researches the problem, and talks to regulators in relevant departments.
If he decides to go further with a case, Martin goes to bat for business owners by requesting a range of actions from other state agencies: fines lowered, sanctions eliminated, licenses granted or restored. In several cases, Martin urged a department to exercise “discretion” and limit the severity of a sanction or eliminate it altogether.
Some business owners have praised Martin’s work, including developers of a disc golf course.
“Jay most certainly put 100% of his effort into helping us save the Disc golf course from being closed down by the DEP,” wrote Dr. James LaVallee and Ron LaVallee, owners of LaVallee Links in Randolph.
The LaVallees had been involved in a conflict with the state over environmental construction violations at their newly built course. Resolving the conflict, wrote Martin in a report, meant “4 seasonal jobs retained.”
Another case involved a Bath drug store facing almost $500,000 in repayment of Medicaid fees to the state Department of Health and Human Services because a pharmacist had been practicing without a current license for three years. The drugstore owner said he would have to close or sell if forced to pay, which Martin wrote would result in the loss of 16 year-round jobs and 25 seasonal ones.
Martin joined the Wilson’s Drug Store’s attorney in requesting a lower repayment amount, which Martin wrote was “unreasonable and unfair.” Ultimately, the amount was lowered to $25,700, and the drugstore remained open, leading Martin to claim, "the Advocate negotiated an equitable resolution between the owner and state agency.”
Herbert Downs, director of audit for DHHS, disputed Martin’s claim that he had negotiated the settlement.
“No, that would not be true at all,” Downs said.
Downs said Martin “sat in on the meeting” and “commented,” but the negotiation was among the pharmacist’s attorney, Downs and a DHHS staffer.
“Without question,” responded Summers, “had the Small Business Advocate not been put into statute by the Legislature and signed by the governor, these individuals would have had a much different reception.”
Martin’s effectiveness, however, has been hampered by laws and regulations that prevent him from gaining access to certain agency records or proceedings.
In the case of Great Falls Builders Inc., the Gorham construction company was in a conflict with the state’s Unemployment Insurance Commission over whether certain workers were employees or subcontractors.
Martin proposed to join Great Falls president Jon Smith at a hearing before the commission. In a note to the case file, Martin wrote that the chair of the commission “politely said that I am not allowed to attend due to the confidential nature of information shared at that meeting. I asked her to reconsider but she said her decision was firm.”
The file note says, “Mr. Smith ultimately lost his appeal to the UIC. Case closed.”
In an interview last week, Billings, who supported Bennett in the gubernatorial primary, was less critical of the position: “It’s still pretty early on in the process to make a judgment,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think we’re all in agreement to have someone located somewhere to help people work through the minefield of state regulations and bring some pressure to bear when an agency isn’t acting appropriately.”
Testifying to a legislative committee about the small business advocate’s duties, Summers said, “I believe they can be effectively executed within the existing resources of the Secretary of State’s Office.”
In fact, the position in the budget that Martin eventually took had been frozen until 2011. When it was “unfrozen,” Summers had the option of filling it or leaving it vacant. He chose to fill it with the advocate position at a cost to taxpayers of $80,000-$84,000 for salary and benefits.
Was the addition of the position a contradiction of Summers’ stated goal of “cutting government?”
“No,” Summers said. “The position already existed and chances are it would have been filled” by naming a new assistant secretary of state.
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: email@example.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.