AUGUSTA — The one sure thing about term limits is that the Legislature’s 186 members can’t stick around in the same position for too long.

Nobody can serve more than eight consecutive years representing the same district before he’s forced to get out or at least run for a different office.

But some politicians say that voters, who imposed the term limits in a referendum that won overwhelming support, got it wrong more than two decades ago.

They argue that abolishing term limits would lead to more savvy and experienced lawmakers, stifle the power of lobbyists, and make the House and Senate operate more efficiently.

Term limits “really don’t serve a useful purpose,” said state Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston.

Critics of term limits include Gov. Paul LePage, Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon.

It isn’t clear, though, if they’ll take any steps to reverse or revise the term limits imposed by referendum, starting with the legislators elected in 1996. A bid to drop the limits last session didn’t get far.

The assistant majority leader of the House, Lewiston Democrat Jared Golden, said there are pros and cons to term limits.

“I understand why many voters support them. I also think there have been some unintended negative consequences,” he said. “But unless there was strong public support for removing term limits, I don’t think I would support getting rid of them.”

Two decades into the law, there is no obvious sign that it helps much and quite a bit of dissatisfaction among political leaders who think it hampers good governing for no good reason.

Supporters hoped that injecting new faces into the Legislature regularly would break the grip of the old guard and open the way for new ideas and more diversity.

Political scientists who have studied the issue haven’t found much indication that it’s worked out that way in any states. Instead, they’ve found growing partisanship, perhaps because an ever-changing cast of lawmakers don’t get to know each as well. They also cite a decline in the clout of committees where politicians of the past could master the details of tough issues over the course of years.

But there’s another way to look at that.

As state Republican Party Chairman Richard Bennett put it during testimony on the issue two years ago, “We should not go back to the days when overly powerful presiding officers and committee chairs in this Legislature lorded over public policy-making, creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility.”

Bennett said then there are “only two real constituencies in favor of overturning” term limits: legislators and lobbyists.

The law bars legislators in both the House and the Senate from serving more than four consecutive terms in the same body. Some lawmakers have gotten around the prohibition by switching between the House and Senate when their terms expire, a move that explains how state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, reached half a century of service in the Legislature.

Gideon told a Portland radio station recently that she thinks “the ballot box and the voters and how they pay attention and the decisions they make are really what should define term limits” rather than a legal dictate that veteran legislators must go after four terms.

LePage has said the state should throw term limits “out of the window,” though in October he expressed support for at least letting lawmakers stay longer than eight years. He also said that when their time’s up, they should be required to go home instead of seeking to switch chambers.

Term limits “work against an effective Legislature,” said Handy, who is starting a new term in the House but also held a seat representing Lewiston from 1982 to 1994, in the era before term limits were imposed.

As it is, Handy said, many of the people at the State House who have “the institutional memory and history” at their command are lobbyists with a vested interest in what happens. They often wind up writing the bills that lawmakers consider, he said.

“In the age of term limits, unfortunately, you see power not in the people who are elected by the people, but instead more in the hands of the people who are working behind the scenes,” Gideon said.

Handy said the state would be better off having some legislators who have been around long enough to be able to explain how issues were dealt with in the past — what worked, what didn’t and why.

Restricting members to four consecutive terms doesn’t give them a long time to learn the ropes and get things done.

The people of Maine lose a great deal as a result, Handy said.

“We never stop learning here,” Gideon said. “There is so much to understand, whether it is about a policy area, whether you’re focusing on education or energy or anything else. Or whether it’s just how things work and how things get done.”

Handy said people imposed term limits because they saw it as a way of forcing a change in legislative leadership.

But that could be accomplished with less fallout by simply revising the Legislature’s own rules to limit how long someone could serve in the leadership, he said.

Maine was the first state in the country to impose term limits on all of its legislators, a move approved by a referendum that passed by a two-thirds majority. A decade ago, voters had the opportunity to revise it to let legislators stay 12 years instead of just eight. They overwhelmingly rejected that idea.

The attraction of term limits remains pretty strong across the country.

President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to seek term limits for Congress, a move he even talked about briefly during his October rally at a Lisbon Christian school.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says there are 15 states with term limits on their lawmakers. Six other states have repealed them, usually by court order, though Idaho and Utah’s legislatures killed term limits on their own.

Every state with term limits imposed them between 1990 and 2000. The concept hasn’t won over any other states since.

Arkansas voters in 2014 agreed at the polls to revise term limits that had restricted legislators to six years in the House and eight years in the Senate. Now lawmakers are allowed to serve a total of 16 years in the Legislature, a change that eliminated most of the shuffling between houses that happened there.

For the League of Women Voters of Maine, which has always opposed term limits, the issue is straightforward.

One of its board members, Polly Ward of Freeport, laid out the group’s argument succinctly during testimony in 2015.

“Term limits violate the ultimate right of voters to choose the representatives who best serve the needs of their district and the state of Maine,” Ward said. “By disqualifying experienced and capable legislators, term limits make our government less representative of voters, less accountable and less effective.”


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