Get The Weekly Bancroft & Annual Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox!

Legislative reforms could improve the bill-passing process greatly

Fewer lawmakers dealing with fewer bills could be more effective and get done sooner.


" 'The time has come,' the Walrus said, 'to talk of many things: of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.' "

I was reminded of this quote from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" as I reviewed the latest news from the Legislature.

Anything goes; all bills, no matter their source or subject, get a hearing, and virtually all go to the floor. Some are weird, some frivolous, some simply misguided – a few are needed, but how do we give them the attention they deserve?

In a column on March 17 titled "Maine Legislature too big, too busy and too slow," I discussed several of the problems with the way our Legislature works and indicated I would offer suggestions for improvement.

First, on the issue of how bills can be processed more effectively so that all 2,000 or so per session do not have to follow lock step through the entire process:

• Many states, according to the National Council on State Legislatures, give committee chairs and leadership the right to decide what bills they hear.

• Some legislatures, such as in North Dakota and Oklahoma, have a fixed date after which a bill is dead if it has not progressed in both houses.

• Some states also limit the number of bills any individual legislator may propose. Colorado, for example, limits each legislator to at most five bills.

Whatever Maine adopts, the key is to be able to table bills that clearly are ill-conceived, frivolous or simply impractical.

Second, reduce the size of the Legislature, specifically the size of the House, from 151 to the 70-to-90 range, as is the practice in the many rural states.

Current Maine practice encourages regional and parochial interests. It encourages more bills and resolutions. It also makes it difficult to recruit sufficient good candidates for a part-time "citizens' legislature."

Third, reduce the amount of time the Legislature is in session. A fundamental problem in recruiting good candidates is the difficulty of having to be available virtually daily for six months in the first year of the biennial session and at least four months in the second year of the session.

A few years ago, Oregon conducted a comprehensive review of its Legislature and recommended a first-year session of no more than 120 days and a second-year session of no more than 60 days. This would be an excellent recommendation for Maine to follow.

Fourth, extend term limits from the current maximum of four two-year terms to six two-year terms. In addition, change the length of terms in the Senate from two to three years. Maine is one of 15 states that currently have term limits.

While Maine's term limits are largely similar in length to those of other states, I believe they do not serve the state well, principally because there is little continuity in leadership.

Maine's recent Senate presidents and House speakers have been limited from serving more than one term in these key leadership positions. This has meant little continuity and generally weakened leadership.

While few would want to go back to the system that led to years of dominance of the legislative process by formerly perennial House Speaker John Martin, something is needed to give more coherence to policy initiatives that span several legislative sessions.

Ironically, Martin and a few other veteran politicians have managed to serve continuously in the Legislature in any case by alternating between the House and Senate.

Fifth, adopt open primaries in Maine. The open primary has recently been adopted in California and was also one of the recommendations of the Oregon study commission.

An open primary system simply means that all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, may vote in the primary for one slate of all candidates.

The top two vote-getters then have a runoff election to decide the winner. The advantage of this approach is to empower more moderate candidates from both parties.

This should be particularly true in Maine, as we have a large segment of independent voters who are virtually disenfranchised in the primary process. As excessive partisanship and the absence of a "centrist bloc" are chief weaknesses of the Maine Legislature, the open primary could pay big dividends.

These are a few suggestions for how I believe the state should move to strengthen the effectiveness of our Legislature. Many of these proposals must be adopted by the Legislature itself. Heal thyself, Augusta.

Let the dialogue begin.