AUGUSTA – In what one former legislative leader called a “stunning reversal,” lawmakers may vote to ask Mainers if they want to repeal the state’s term limits law, which now restricts how long legislators can stay in office.

If approved by the full Legislature, voters would decide the fate of term limits in the 2006 gubernatorial election, Sen. Kenneth Gagnon, D-Waterville, said Thursday.

Last month, the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee voted to recommend term limits be extended from the current eight years to 12 years, with voter approval. Gagnon, the committee’s Senate chairman, said his committee reconsidered its recommendation Monday after other lawmakers told him they preferred asking voters to repeal term limits “to keep the message simple.” The committee voted 12-1 on the new language.

If voters repeal term limits, it will not change the current eight-year limit for constitutional officers, and it would not affect sitting legislators, only those newly elected in 2006, Gagnon said.

“For example, I have one more term, so I could run and that’s all I have,” he said. If he came back to office after sitting out for two years, however, Gagnon and others would then not have any limits, under the proposal.

Richard Bennett, a Norway Republican and former Senate president, blasted the committee’s action Thursday. “It’s a stunning reversal of position, done without a public notice. It underscores why term limits are much needed, when you have legislators act like this, changing their position without public notice.”

Bennett, the leader of a loose-knit group calling themselves “Don’t Touch Term Limits,” called the change “a sneak attack” on term limits. At a recent public hearing, citizens expressed concern that term limits not be tampered with, he said.

“Now, when nobody’s watching, they do an about-face to scuttle term limits entirely. This is going to add to the outrage some people already have at the Legislature in general.”

But Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, who sponsored a bill asking legislators to repeal term limits without voters’ permission, praised the committee’s action. Strimling said true term limits “happens at the ballot box.”

The House and Senate will vote in the next several weeks on the proposal. Voters approved term limits overwhelmingly in a 1993 statewide referendum.

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