Any effort to reorganize, streamline or reform state government should be done with careful thinking and planning.Piecemeal approaches (such as reducing the size of the Maine House of Representatives) without planning next steps is foolhardy.

I believe there are four areas we should examine.The first: Maine needs to decide how or by whom we should be represented. Do we want a “citizen legislature” or “professional legislature”?Are our term limits too limiting?Do we pay legislators enough?Lastly, is there a way to smooth the legislative process?

In this age, a true “citizen legislature” is a difficult endeavor.Who among us has the work flexibility to leave their job to either serve full or part-time terms, then return to that job?

James Madison wrote that legislators should be “called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature and continued in appointment for a short period of office.”In America, term limits date to the 18th century.Known as “rotation,” citizens in colonial America would serve in the legislature and then return to private life.This was not a strict mandate, but an informal social practice.

For many, the idea of a “professional legislature,” made up of career politicians, is hard to swallow.A legislature without term limits is paramount to creating a professional legislature.

I believe to have an effective citizen legislature, Maine needs to extend term limits and increase salaries.

While I support term limits, Maine’s are too constraining.Wyoming, Utah and others have term limits with more terms than allowed by Maine law.As one legislator recently told me, “The first year and a half (in the House) is spent learning the budget process.”

Term limits result in a general loss of institutional knowledge – how things are run.For that reason, we should explore extending the number of terms which can be served.

Where I will get in bipartisan trouble is by suggesting Maine legislators should be paid more. To entice and encourage Mainers from various backgrounds to run for office, we need to compensate them fairly.They need to be paid for the time and expertise they bring to the table.We want representation from a wide range of Mainers, yet few have the financial wherewithal to honor our request.

Increased salaries will make it easier for Mainers to answer the call.

Based on 2002 population figures, Maine was the 40th most populous state (1.27 million people).By those numbers our Senate districts average 36,000 constituents and House Districts average 8,400 constituents.Forty-one states average more residents per House district and 44 average more per Senate district.

Maine’s current Legislative operating budget hovers around 1 percent of the total state budget.While it looks nice, reducing legislators to save $750,000 per year (as now discussed in Augusta) isn’t a drop in the deficit bucket.

An analysis of process and productivity must be done before reducing the size of the Legislature. What can and needs to be done?Arbitrarily reducing the size of government, to save money instead of to improve how we govern does not remedy anything.

In terms of process, the Maine Legislature needs a body similar to Massachusetts’ “Committee on Steering and Policy.”This committee would advise and set priorities for the Senate and House, sift through, hold or send legislation back (to sponsors) before sending bills to their appropriate committee.The process would control the flow and limit redundancies in legislation.

While there needs to be some flexibility, before proceeding too far with reform, an analysis of the institution as a whole needs to take place.Costs, process, structure, layout and reasoning for reform all should be considered.

The single most important thing to consider, though, is this: Will potential reforms limit the state’s ability to govern, lead and provide resources for Mainers? If so, then the best action would be inaction.

Will Fessenden is a past chair of the Androscoggin County Democratic Committee, considers himself a “community/grassroots organizer” and serves on several nonprofit boards and committees. He works in Auburn and lives in Sabattus with his wife Jennifer and their two boys. E-mail: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.