Maine needs smaller, tighter state Legislature

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There are four proposals to reform the state Legislature, which is in itself an example of why the Legislature needs reforming.

Typically, 1,600 to 2,600 bills come before the Legislature in its first session, many of them slightly different approaches to solving the same problem.

So, LD 669 and LD 153 both seek to reduce the size of the Legislature. LD 973 would cut the length of legislative sessions while LD 804 would merge the Senate and House into a unicameral legislature.

Couldn’t legislative reformers have come up with one unified plan for legislative reform?

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They could, and they would, if they had to. And that’s what legislative reform could accomplish.

Last year, Envision Maine produced a report, “Reinventing Maine Government: How Mainers Can Shape a Sustainable Government and a New Prosperity.”

The report argues that the structure of government in Maine is part of the problem, and it offers four good ideas for reshaping that structure.

But, first, the problem. Maine has the 40th largest population in the nation, but we have the 10th largest Legislature, according to Envision Maine. The cost of that Legislature is 132 percent higher than average, and 68 percent higher than similar rural states.

The report asks us to imagine this:

A large corporation, with 15,000 to 20,000 employees, being run by a board of 151 inexperienced people, each of whom can add as many meeting agenda items as they wish, each of which then necessitates a committee hearing.

Decisions are sometimes made very quickly, often in the last hours of the day or the last days of the session.

Oh, and all these people are divided into two camps determined to undermine and defeat each other when they come up for election.

When you think about it, it’s a wonder this beast gets anything done at all.

While some messiness is inherent in the democratic process, the Envision Maine report has four very good ideas for making things better:

1. Allow no more than five bills in each two-year session from any single legislator. This would force legislators to prioritize and, perhaps, work with others to combine ideas.

2. Reduce the Legislature by one-third, to 23 senators and 101 House members. Electronic communications and highways have made communications easy, even in the largest of districts. We don’t need a Legislature designed for horse-and-buggy days.

3. Reduce the length of the legislative session by 50 percent. Evidence from other states shows that states with tighter deadlines actually get more done and more efficiently.

4. Impose lifetime term limits of 12 years on all legislators. We don’t feel as strongly about closing the loophole that allows people to jump between House and Senate forever. But voters do like term limits, and 12 years seems like a reasonable balance.

What we need now is a single proposal to set the wheels of change in motion.

And a lot of legislators willing to vote themselves out of jobs in the state’s best interest.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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