AUGUSTA – With a tall wooden Trojan horse standing outside the State House – meant to symbolize lawmakers’ attempt to sneak something by voters – a legislative committee voted Wednesday to create a referendum that would allow legislators to stay in office longer.

The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to combine several pieces of legislation on term limits into one bill. If that bill passes, voters will be asked in November 2006 if they want to change the number of consecutive years legislators may serve from 8 to 12.

If voters say yes, the more generous limits would apply “to no one currently in the building,” said Kenneth Gagnon, D-Waterville, the committee’s Senate chairman. “It’ll only take effect for those elected in 2006.”

Gagnon said his committee didn’t want the referendum decided this November because it’s an off-election year. “We want a bigger turnout.”

Even if voters approve the referendum question, the legislation says the existing six-year limit on the length of time a lawmaker may stay in either of the two top leadership positions will remain, which means no one could be House speaker or Senate president more than six years, Gagnon said.

Outside the State House, term limits defenders pulled a 12-foot wooden horse into the parking lot, featuring signs that read “Stop Trojan Horse Politicians” and “Don’t Touch Term Limits.”

Any time legislators try to change term limits, “they’re going against the will of the people,” said Scott Tillman of the national Don’t Touch Term Limits organization. Just as the Trojan horse “was a foot in the door in Troy for the Greeks, all these bills are Trojan horse bills,” Tillman said.

The group’s spokesman was former Maine Senate President Richard Bennett, R-Norway, who complained of a “pattern of legislators not listening to the people of Maine.”

It’s time for legislators to listen, he said. “Term limits came from the people. … If we want to change term limits, we will. In the meantime, don’t touch term limits,” Bennett warned.

Other term limit supporters attending were Auburn City Councilor Belinda Gerry; former Rep. Stavros Mendros, R-Lewiston; Rep. Robert Berube, R-Lisbon; and Rep. Phil Cressey, R-Cornish.

Bennett said that when he was first elected in 1990 he was ambivalent about term limits. But soon it was clear “that power was held in the iron grip of a few longest-serving members,” and he became a staunch supporter.

In 1993 Maine voters overwhelmingly voted for term limits in a citizen-initiated referendum. It is not a failure of term limits that the Legislature has done “a less than ideal job integrating the experience of many into policy-making,” Bennett said.

“Term limits takes all the blame for all of legislative dysfunction, but that criticism is unfair. We have failed to reform the legislative process to accommodate” term limits, he said, adding that the only opposition to term limits has come from career legislators and their supporters.

Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, disagreed, saying term limits “has taken democracy out” of politics in Maine, that “term limits limits voters’ choices and limits experience in this building.”

While Strimling’s effort this session to totally repeal term limits was rejected, he approved of the committee’s decision to extend term limits to 12 years, calling that an improvement.

Bennett disagreed. “They ought to keep their hands off of it.” While lawmakers only have to vote to send something to referendum, “average citizens have to gather 55,000 signatures,” Bennett said.

His group will continue to monitor votes and try to persuade lawmakers not to tinker with the law, Bennett said. If that doesn’t work and there is a referendum, “we will be part of that debate,” he added.

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