A dark cloud settling over a great idea

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Stavros Mendros, a Lewiston city councilor, is accused of improperly using his power as a notary public to certify petition circulators in a citizen initiative campaign.

Mendros is expected to answer these charges in August.

The charges loom over another initiative Mendros spearheads – to delay November’s vote on legislative term limits until 2008. It’s intent is logical: a presidential year turnout will be exponential compared to this meager off-year.

Term limits deserve this scrutiny. Since its adoption in 1993 to combat institutionalized legislators (personified by Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake), reviews of its subsequent impact have been mixed.

Though it cannot be solely blamed for the failure of major policy initiatives, like taxation reform, missteps in Augusta make us wonder whether Maine should scrap limits altogether. November’s referendum proposes tacking two additional terms on to the current limit of four, as a compromise.

Yet term limits compromise the ability of lawmakers, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislators, and turned the Maine House into a freshmen dorm, and the Senate into prime upperclassmen housing.

Legislators are older, but less experienced. They are more ambitious, but more likely to duplicate efforts.

High turnover among legislative leadership creates a flock of lame ducks – “Members know they can out-wait leaders and many do,” the NCSL said – trying to create a legacy.

The ability of committees to gestate complicated policies, instead of reviewing bill after bill, has waned.

NCSL paints a competitive Legislature, where rushes for accomplishments overshadow due diligence. Power grows within the executive and legislative staff, which has time and institutional knowledge on their sides.

Compare these findings with the recent debate on tax reform: an ambitious Taxation Committee, marooned in drumming support for its plan, pushed to the deadline by a patient executive branch and powerful business lobby.

Myriad pressures torpedoed tax reform. A Legislature sans term limits, perhaps, could have salvaged consensus points for next session, and built upon the experience. Instead, reform was scuttled like a sinking schooner.

Term limits intended to make legislators, the workers of government, more responsive. Its negative impact on policy development, the business of government, is an uncomfortable side effect.

In trying to improve productivity, have we harmed the process?

Adding two terms may restore some of the institutional strength term limits have zapped from the Legislature.

But are extra years enough?

These questions, and many others, are why Maine needs the closer scrutiny afforded by 2008 on term limits – voting on extensions is akin to a referendum on the program itself. If approved, voters are content with term limits.

If rejected, perhaps movement toward repeal should begin.

Term limits are important enough to wait until 2008, which makes us lament the charges against the petition’s organizer, Mendros. Leave it to controversy to overshadow this fine idea for improving Maine’s government.

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