Citizens see a compelling need to ‘trim’

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Here’s a popular citizen idea: trim the size of the Legislature.

If we did, we’d have fewer lawmakers to propose spending bills and less support costs to staff and administer Maine’s yearly sessions.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Maine is ranked 40 when it comes to total population but it has the 10th biggest legislature in country.

In a letter published Tuesday, Richard H. Lee Jr. of Turner made a good point: “In this world of high-tech communication, why does Maine, with one of the smallest populations, need one of the largest legislatures in the country?”

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He called on Gov. Paul LePage, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and legislative leaders who say they are serious about less government to “begin by working at reducing the size of the Legislature.”

Lee got strong support from SJ reader Mike LeBlanc of Wilton, who pointed out that California has “29 times the population of Maine, but Maine’s House of Representatives is nearly twice the size of California’s State Assembly. Why do Maine people need so much more ‘government’?”

That’s a good question.

In 2006, one of our readers — Anne Ceplikas of Auburn — submitted a detailed outline of how she pictured a downsized Legislature, trimming the current roster of senators from 35 to 16, and the current roster of representatives from 151 to 21.

Her plan would be to elect one senator and one representative per county, and boost the more heavily-populated counties with one extra representative, with never more than a combined 37 senators and representatives serving in the State House. The effect would be a Legislature one-fifth the size of our current representation.

(Think of the public savings in Clean Elections funds.)

With such a small Legislature, Ceplikas even suggested taxpayers might be able to afford a “nice raise” for these elected officials. Perhaps.

There have been numerous calls over the years to reduce the size of the Legislature, including informal discussions in 2009 and an actual bill two years prior.

The 2007 bill, which would have generated a voter referendum to amend the Maine Constitution, was killed in the House by a 72-55 vote after what lawmakers called a “lengthy” debate.

In presenting the measure, then-Rep. Christopher Babbidge argued that if state officials are asking others to cut costs, it would send a “symbolic message” if the Legislature did likewise.

It wasn’t like the bill, estimated to save $1.6 million annually, would have dramatically reduced the Legislature. It would have trimmed 19 members in the House and just two members in the Senate.

Babbidge is no longer serving in the Legislature, but Rep. Teresea Hayes of Buckfield is. She supported the reduction bill in 2007, noting that her constituents are constantly telling her government needs to cut its size and the bill provided an opportunity for Maine voters to be heard.

“If school officials can do it, so can we,” Hayes said at the time, referring to school consolidation.

Some — but not all — school districts did consolidate, but the Legislature didn’t.

What the Legislature does do, year after year after year after year, is push for all other branches of government — from state agencies on down to the smallest town offices and school districts — to trim budgets, seek out efficiencies, increase performance and reduce size, all in the quest of good stewardship of our tax dollars. Never is that more true than this year as lawmakers struggle to craft a state budget.

While constituents might like the idea of a leaner, less expensive Legislature, the expectation that lawmakers would voluntarily vote themselves out of office is pure fantasy.

But, then, it’s always good to dream.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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