Now that the primary elections are behind us, the debate returns to what was always the main subject – the race for governor. The battle between incumbent Paul LePage and challenger Mike Michaud, with Eliot Cutler again in the mix, has an epochal quality to it. Whatever happens, it won’t be one of those elections where you wonder how much difference it would have made had the other guy won.

So it’s time to dust off the modest proposal I raised back in March – whether we could create a grand bargain to reform what are some of the oddest and least useful parts of Maine’s political system. Those would be legislative term limits – unnecessary in a citizen legislature whose powers are already limited – and the indirect election of the attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer, something practiced by no other state, and not in federal elections, either, since the 17th Amendment provided for direct election of U.S. senators a century ago.

The Legislature would love to get rid of term limits, if it dared, but it will hold on to the job of electing constitutional officers until the end of time unless some larger force intervenes.

A governor could do it if both parts of the plan were presented together. So the logical thing to do was to check with the three men in line to be governor.

They agree on very little, but on this subject they’re unanimous: They think it’s a good idea.

Enthusiasm varies, and there are some caveats, but I conclude this really is a bipartisan, trans-party issue dealing with what we used to call “good government.”

Gov. Paul LePage, who attracted attention when he called for abolishing term limits – he thinks we need more experienced lawmakers – is also OK with electing the three constitutional officers. His press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said briefly, “This is something he would support.”

Eliot Cutler was unequivocal. Crystal Canney, Cutler’s communication director, said, “He opposes term limits because he feels that there is lost value in institutional memory, and as the system is now, people just move between House and Senate.”

Cutler also “agrees that the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer should be popularly elected,” and goes further – supporting creation of a lieutenant governor position that 43 states have, and a unicameral legislature, something only one state (Nebraska) now has.

Congressman Mike Michaud, the only former legislator in the group, supports the concept in broad terms, but has reservations, according to spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt.

Michaud’s term limits position is firm: “He was against them back when term limits were first created” [in 1993] when he was a state senator, she said, and “he trusts the voters to choose when a legislator should or should not be re-elected.”

On constitutional officers, Michaud is “open to the idea” of popular election, Reinholt said. He would prefer to investigate how this works in other states because “he can see both positive and negative impacts of such a change.” He’s more likely to support electing a secretary of state than the treasurer, whose job is more technical.

It’s true some people wonder whether we would really gain from having more statewide elections. They wonder whether this would just encourage spending more money and producing more attack ads.

To which one can readily answer: Maine has a Clean Elections Act that should provide a viable alternative. It was damaged by a mendacious U.S. Supreme Court decision, but can be repaired either by legislative vote, or by the referendum supporters hope to have on the ballot in 2015.

Ultimately, though, the question comes down to the same theme Michaud struck about term limits: Do you trust the voters to make decisions about those who govern them?

It’s clear to just about everyone who’s made a serious study of it that Maine suffers from a structural lack of democracy: We elect only one state official statewide, the governor, and putting so much weight on a single office hasn’t served us well.

It’s almost incontestable that we’d have a much wider range of qualified candidates for the top job if we also practiced elections the way virtually every other state does.

That all three candidates support this idea is heartening. If the winner makes it a priority of his first State of the State address, I’m convinced it will happen.

It won’t revolutionize state government, but it will measurably improve it. Of the thousands of bills the new legislature will debate, this could be the most significant.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]


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