AUGUSTA – Debate still echoes over Maine’s pioneering move to enforce term limits for its state lawmakers and new efforts are expected this session to modify the original 1993 referendum vote that laid down restrictions on consecutive service in elective office.

A recently published book focusing on Maine’s experience suggests that term limits have brought about major changes for groups inside the political system but not necessarily for the public at large.

“I think the intentions behind the imposition of term limits were good, but they have not worked. The Legislature really needs a base of knowledge from which to operate and with term limits we’ve reduced that base,” says longtime lobbyist Jon Doyle.

Doyle’s comments during an impromptu interview outside the State House Hall of Flags match some of the findings in “Changing Members: The Maine Legislature in the Era of Term Limits,” published by Lexington Books.

Co-authored by Dean Matthew C. Moen of the University of South Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences and University of Maine political scientists Kenneth T. Palmer and Richard J. Powell, “Changing Members” asserts that putting new legislative seats up for grabs “certainly reinvigorated grassroots democracy in the short term.”

Heightened electoral competition, however, carried a cost. Some of the resulting “rough-and-tumble” campaigns “eroded some of the moderation and gentility of Maine politics at the local level,” the book concludes.

The authors also say changing faces in the state Senate and House of Representatives did not alter political ambitions or outlooks in significant ways, although personal timetables for advancement may have been accelerated.

Meanwhile, the authors say forced turnover, by draining experience from the Legislature, has given new advantages to the governor and executive branch officials and increased the sway of legislative staff.

Losing influence to the Senate makes the House a big loser, the authors say, while lobbyists have had to adapt by developing personal relationships with new officeholders in an era the book characterizes as “many players, fewer rules.”

Whatever ordinary Mainers anticipated before term limits took effect in 1996, the authors found fundamental things much as before.

Giving the book’s basic findings a high grade is state Sen. John Martin, the veteran Democratic lawmaker from Eagle Lake whose extended tenure as an assertive House speaker served as a rallying point for term limit advocates.

“Those are entirely my sentiments,” said Martin, who sat out one two-year period before retaking his House seat from northern Maine and moving on to the Senate.

Martin has urged a go-slow approach toward repealing Maine’s term limits law, saying the public must learn what it lost. In a telephone interview last week, Martin said he now believes “the time has come.”

State Sen. Richard Nass, a Republican from Acton who supports term limits, said he would not be surprised if repeal happens, but did not predict when that might be.

Another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Christine Savage of Union, professed to have no strong feelings about keeping or scrapping restrictions to four consecutive two-year terms in either House of the Legislature but said a change would need statewide approval. “The people enacted term limits. It’s got to be the people that repeal them,” she said.

Citizen initiatives limiting the terms of legislators were passed by voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma in 1990 and subsequently 18 other states including Maine followed suit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine’s term limits also apply to the state treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general and auditor.

Courts struck down term limits in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming and they have been repealed by the legislatures in Idaho and Utah, according to the NCSL.

The NCSL says modern term limits first took effect in 1996, in Maine and in California.

A recent analysis by the Government Performance Project, a project of the University of Richmond funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, called the Maine Legislature “underexperienced and overworked.”

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