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The Legislature: Unwieldy and Over-Extended

“Reinventing Maine Government,” a bipartisan report by Envision Maine was released in September, detailing major problems that make our state government inefficient, ineffective and too expensive. Twin City TIMES has published several sections of the report over the past few months.

Published before the election in an attempt to educate and guide candidates, the report provides a blueprint on how to completely reinvent Maine government and transform it into a streamlined and cost-effective organization. With the election over and a new regime in Augusta, we will continue to publish sections of the report.

According to the report, the size and cost of the Legislature is one of the state’s major problems. (See much more detail in the report at www.envisionmaine.org.)

Maine ranks 40th in total population in the country, but our legislature is the nation’s 10th largest.

The cost of the legislature, relative to income, is 132% higher than the U.S. average and 68% higher than the average of similarly rural states. Part of the reason why is that the Legislature tries to tackle too many issues for a “part-time” citizen body.

The key to understanding why the Legislature doesn’t work well is to look beyond size and length of sessions to the number of bills and issues it tries to take up. Under the legislature’s current rules, legislators, no matter how inexperienced or knowledgeable, can submit as many bills as they want each year.

That is an invitation to chaos and inefficiency. The results of this over-extension should not be surprising. Unimportant work clogs the machinery of government, while critical issues languish or get pushed to the future because they would take up too much time. Programs and benefits to constituents or government employees, as well as tax breaks to well-organized interests, are created or extended without a good sense of their long-term cost.

It’s not that legislators aren’t dedicated and caring, or that they don’t work hard. The Legislature is full of good, well-meaning people who are giving much to the state. But the system is failing legislators—and the rest of us. The frantic schedule that results from taking up too many bills each year discourages strategic thinking and prevents prioritizing and promotes poor decisions. Over the long term, extended sessions also make it difficult, if not impossible, for a representative cross-section of Maine people to participate in the system.

How The Legislature is Organized. Like every state except Nebraska, Maine splits its Legislature in two: A Senate, which has 35 members, and a House of Representatives, which has 151 members. That means each senator represents about 37,600 people and each representative has about 8,700 constituents.

The state Constitution specifies the size of the House, but allows the Senate to consist of 31, 33 or 35 members.

All legislators in Maine serve two-year terms—unlike most states, where representatives serve two-year terms and senators serve four-year terms. Most legislative work is done in 17 committees, ranging from the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to the Committee on Utilities and Energy. Before a bill goes to the full House and Senate for a vote, it must first go to one of those committees.

Committees hold public hearings where interested parties have the chance to provide insight—and to argue for or against particular pieces of legislation. The Legislature has two regular sessions during its two-year existence. The first year is a “long” session that usually goes from December to late June. The second year’s “short” session goes from January to late April.

Submitting Bills. In the first session, legislators may introduce pretty much any bill they’d like—and as many as they’d like. Typically, they collectively introduce 1,600 to 2,600 bills in the first session.

In the second session, to introduce new bills, they must receive permission from the 10-member Legislative Council, made up of the Senate President, the House Speaker and the majority and minority floor leaders and assistant leaders of both houses. The ability to “carry over” bills from the first session, though, has become a major loophole in the constitutional intent that the second year should be just for emergencies.

Term Limits. While the governor of Maine has long been subject to term limits, Maine is one of 15 states—and the only one in New England—to impose term limits on legislators.

Six states—Arkansas, California, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada and Oklahoma—impose lifetime term limits, which means that once legislators “termed out,” they may never run for House or Senate again. In Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, lawmakers must leave the legislature for at least four years before they may run again.

Maine legislators had no such restrictions until 1996, when voters passed a law to prevent legislators from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms. The word “consecutive” is key: Legislators are allowed to serve as long as voters will allow them, but cannot serve more than eight consecutive years in the House or eight consecutive years in the Senate.

A too-familiar pattern has emerged, where long-term legislators serve the maximum number of years in the House, then move to do the same thing in the Senate, and so on.

Most people would agree that term limits have allowed more people to serve in the legislature. But they have also decreased institutional knowledge by legislators and shifted power toward bureaucracies and the governor.

Legislative Pay. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maine pays lawmakers $13,526 for the first session and $9,874 for the second. During session, they also receive a per diem rate of $38 a day for housing (or mileage and tolls in lieu of housing) and $32 a day for meals. Legislators also receive the state’s health and dental insurance, plus a retirement benefit.

What Can Be Done? Maine needs to reduce the legislature’s scope of work, so it can spend more time on critical issues and less time doing paperwork and running around frantically. That would also provide an enormously helpful side benefit of allowing a broader cross-section of the population to serve.

Allow no more than 5 bills in each two-year session from any single legislator.

No single action can more effectively improve the operations and quality of decision-making of the Legislature than to reduce the workload and prioritize what matters. Many states do this, in various ways, as does the federal government. Sometimes it’s by an overarching committee designed for that purpose. Other times it’s through legislative leadership or committee chairs.

We think it’s best to let individual legislators decide what they see as their highest priorities. How the number of bills is limited isn’t nearly as important as simply getting it done.

Reduce the size of the legislature by one third, to 25 Senators and 75 House members, with three House districts in each Senate district.

In the 21st century, it simply isn’t necessary to have a legislature this big. When people traveled by horse and communications were more difficult, it made sense to have many smaller districts. With cars, email, telephones and the Internet, it just isn’t necessary.

Reduce the length of legislative sessions by 50 percent.

If the steps above are implemented, the legislature won’t need as much time to conduct its business.  Sometimes smaller is better. Limiting the number of bills that each legislator can sponsor to five in each two-year session would reduce the overall number of bills submitted by as much as 80%. That should allow the Legislature to cut its session time by 50% and still have more time for each bill.

Impose lifetime term limits of 12 years on all Legislators. People inside government make a compelling case that term limits have weakened institutional knowledge and empowered the people who stay around the longest: bureaucrats, legislative staff and revolving door legislators.

The public generally seems to have another view, which is that people who spend too much time in Augusta tend to lose touch with ordinary lives. Both arguments have merit.

Term limits have reduced institutional memory in the legislature and removed good leaders prematurely. But that needs to be weighed against people who make government a career, blocking new blood, new energy and new ideas from entering the debate. All things considered, a longer term makes sense, but it shouldn’t include a revolving door loophole that allows people to jump from one body of the legislature to the next.

Imagine Running Your Organization or Company This Way

Here’s one way to look at the problem. Imagine that you are running a large corporation with 15,000 to 20,000 employees. You have a board of 151 people, most of whom have never run an organization of any size.

Your board meets for more than 100 days each year and divides itself into 17 committees. It is also divided into ‘caucuses’ that are in constant opposition to each other.

Peculiarly, nobody establishes the agenda for the board. Instead, each member is allowed to add agenda items—as many as they wish—and each item requires a hearing before one of the committees and perhaps in front of the entire board.

Consequently, the board takes up 2,000 or so items each year. In any one of them, any board member—and for that matter, anyone in the state—can come and speak.

The board makes lots of decisions, sometimes in very short time frames, including some of its most important ones during the last hours of the last day of its work each year. But the quality of the decision-making is often suspect.

That leaves thousands of talented leaders and a cross-section of the state, including people who have experience running organizations, unable and unwilling to participate.

The company is a mess.

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