AUGUSTA – The almost perennial question of whether to junk Maine’s term-limits law will be handed to voters for the first time because of action taken by lawmakers Wednesday.

The House voted 85-60 to ask voters if they want to repeal term limits. On Tuesday the Senate voted 21-14.

Maine’s term-limits law, passed overwhelmingly by a 1993 referendum, restricts state legislators to eight consecutive years in office.

A spokeswoman for Gov. John Baldacci said the governor is expected to sign the bill because voters should decide “on this important issue.”

Except for final procedural votes – or changes legislators could make next year – the question will be on the November 2006 ballot.

Debate on changing term limits has come up nearly every session since the law was passed 12 years ago. However, this is the first time legislators have sent the issue back to voters.

As the proposal is written, constitutional officers would still be restricted to four, two-year terms, as would current legislators. New legislators elected in 2006 and after would no longer face limits.

Most of Wednesday’s debate in the House expressed support for the referendum. Several lawmakers said term limits have eroded the power of legislators and hurt the quality of lawmaking.

Assistant House Majority Leader Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, said term limits have reduced the number of lawmakers with institutional memory, which gives more power to state agencies.

“Bureaucrats come in here and do not tell the full story often,” and there aren’t enough legislators who know the tough questions to ask, he said. Citizens are not getting the good state government oversight they deserve, Duplessie said.

And, he argued, the law was passed after the late Elizabeth Noyce “financed 93 percent” of the referendum campaign in 1993. One person paying for the campaign “was not the voice of the people of Maine,” Duplessie said. “It was one person dissatisfied with a couple of people. … That’s pretty damn one-sided to me,” he said. “Let’s let the citizens really decide.”

Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, D-Auburn, also spoke in favor. She noted that term-limits supporters have argued that limits help reduce the advantage incumbents have in elections, increasing fairness. But she said the state’s Clean Election law, which equalizes candidate spending, has diminished the incumbency advantage.

Among those in opposition was freshman Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. Asking voters to get rid of term limits diminishes the credibility of the Legislature, and it will fail at the ballot box, she predicted. She favored asking voters instead to extend term limits.

Valentino said there is plenty of institutional memory and that her legislative committee includes members “who have been termed out, got re-elected and are back.” Individual legislators are not indispensable, she said. “Everybody in this chamber can easily be replaced.”

Rep. Stanley Moody, D-Manchester, also spoke against the new vote, calling the debate “fascinating.”

“On one hand, the people didn’t know what they were doing when they voted for term limits. On the other hand, if people are not happy with their legislator, they can get rid of them” by not voting for them. But it’s not possible, Moody said, for Manchester voters to vote out a legislator from Falmouth.

Moody said he had a hard time understanding the notion of “career politics.” Like the country’s founding fathers, he said, “we ought to come, represent the people and go home and go back to something.”

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