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Maine Legislature too big, too busy and too slow

Comparisons with similar states show they do business with fewer people and less distractions.

 

There has been much discussion in the past few weeks about bills to improve the performance of the Legislature by trimming its size or by limiting the number of bills legislators are allowed to submit. This is a worthy topic.

My own view is that the Legislature is significantly over-large, and it considers too many bills in a too-unmanaged approach. It also takes up too much time doing all this.

Let's check the facts. Maine is one of 17 smaller, more rural states to have a so-called "citizen's Legislature." In these states, legislators are paid relatively little (the average is $15,900 per year and Maine pays somewhat less), and are expected to be able to hold down other jobs.

All of these states have a bicameral legislature on the federal model. The senates in these states usually have between 20 and 50 members. Maine, at 35 state senators, is about in the middle.

Maine's House of Representatives, at 151 members, is larger than any other state in this group except for New Hampshire, which has 400 and, with its 24 senators, has the largest Legislature in the nation.

The "normal" House size is in the 70-to-100 range, particularly for states with less than 2 million people. Maine has one representative for every 8,600 people. By contrast, Idaho, with similar demographics to Maine, has one legislator for every 20,000 people.

I believe the Maine House would function better if it were half its current size. Representatives tend to reflect too-limited a constituency in many cases. Moreover, if we downsized the Legislature at the same time we embraced other reforms to improve its functioning, we would likely attract a broader cross section of citizens to serve.

As I have pointed out before, the Legislature is overbalanced with members whose other work is or has been largely in the public sector. They are certainly dedicated and well-meaning, but they lack experience in the private sector and have little understanding of how to grow Maine's economy.

Yet growing our economy provides the tax revenue so necessary to run state government.

The entire Legislature is also too unwieldy. There are no restraints on the number of bills that a legislator may introduce – and many of our many legislators measure their worth in numbers of bills submitted.

In recent sessions, the Legislature has considered more than 2,000 bills per session. This compares to approximately 1,000 in New Hampshire.

Why would we need to consider 2,000 new state laws? Does this make sense? This number of bills might be manageable if Maine, like most other legislatures, had a way to defer consideration of bills obviously not going anywhere.

However, in the Maine Legislature everything goes. There is no practical way of killing a bill until it follows the full process – a formal legislative hearing followed almost always by floor debate. (It only takes one vote in committee to force a floor vote.)

All bills, no matter the merit, move in lockstep through the Legislature. In practice, this means endless hearings on mostly meaningless or highly impractical bills. Every Maine citizen should be required to sit through a week of hearings in Augusta, pick your committee.

You will leave that mind-numbing experience sharing my conviction that the system is out of control. The irony is that important legislation often gets short shrift because of the crowded calendars of the most significant committees.

If you don't believe me, ask the members of the Education Committee how much they were able to deliberate on much-needed changes to the school consolidation law in the last session.

In short, we have a system in place now that guarantees lots and lots of work every day over a sustained period of time, often six months (January to June) in the first year of the session and often nearly as long in the second year, even though the second year is supposed to be for "emergency" legislation only.

The result of all this is that most people with regular jobs simply cannot serve in the Legislature. Thirty years ago, when the Legislature was truly part time, a broader cross section of Maine's people served.

Now, this is very difficult. Teachers are the only group that gets special dispensation to serve. As a result, they are the largest single group.

Generally I love and respect teachers, but teaching is not necessarily the best experience for building the Maine economy.

Much needs to be changed in the way things work in Augusta. Some recommendations will follow in a future column.