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Too many unserious bills show need for legislative reform

The state would be better off with fewer lawmakers required to concentrate on more important topics.

The best argument for a smaller Legislature can be found by simply tallying the number of bills already printed in Augusta -- 1,500 and rising.

The tally will no doubt go over 2,000 by the end of the session -- as it has for the past several Legislatures.

Ask yourself why we could possibly need 2,000 more laws. The answer is we do not, of course. What we have here is what I call the Maine Legislature's full-employment act.

There are 16 standing committees and each of them needs something to do for the five days a week over the six months that represent the first session of the two-year Legislature.

If you go to the Legislature's excellent website, http://www.maine.gov/legis/senate/Hearings.html, there is a list of all hearings and work sessions scheduled for the coming week.

Last week, for example, there were 275 public hearings and many work sessions scheduled for the five-day period. You can be sure that our elected citizen representatives are giving us our money's worth in Augusta.

A visit to Augusta to witness a half day of this is worth doing. It is mind-numbing stuff -- occasionally punctuated by a flash of insight or importance.

One person whom I encouraged to attend a hearing in Augusta said she had spent a day there last year to testify on a bill. She said her patience was tested as she had to wait hours for the bill to come up for discussion.

Moreover, as far as she could tell, most of the legislators seemed to be spending more of the time on their laptops or BlackBerrys than listening to the parade of citizens giving their allotted three minutes of comments.

Welcome to the Maine legislative process, where all legislators are encouraged to submit their ideas, longings and whims, however wacky, into the legislative process. There they are transformed into surprisingly reasonable-sounding legislative documents.

Almost every L.D. is granted a hearing before a committee, and it only takes one affirmative vote in committee to send the bill to the floor for a vote of the entire Legislature.

This is how the Legislature's full-employment act is kept full.

However, there are two significant problems with this "everything matters" approach. One is that important legislation often gets buried in with the trivial.

First, committees do not get the time they need to fully debate and understand how best to proceed on the key issues such as tax reform, regulatory reform or education policy.

The second problem is that some wacky and ill-advised proposals get enough oxygen in this process to develop into potential problems.

These problems take lots of time and energy by responsible legislative leaders to defuse.

In this session there are several proposals we should be genuinely concerned about: They includde plans to expand the areas where concealed weapons are allowed, even in the Capitol building. Now there's a prospect to send a chill through most of us.

Then there is the proposal to reinstate billboards (oh, joy, more clutter on the highways), and the act to amend child labor laws to encourage students to work more (rather than study). And so it goes.

Are you with me yet on why we need a smaller Legislature with 21st century rules about how to operate?

Once again "Reinventing Maine Government," the blueprint for a better Maine future produced by Envision Maine, has several good recommendations on this subject.

Under a chapter heading "A Smaller, Smarter Legislature," the report calls for limiting the number of bills, shrinking the size of the Legislature and shortening the sessions.

There are several bills in the Legislature now that address aspects of this problem -- two of them would reduce the size of the House from 151 members to 101 (L.D. 153 and L.D. 669).

L.D. 973 would reduce the legislative sessions to a more reasonable length, and L.D. 804 would combine both houses into a unicameral Legislature.

The problem with all of these bills is that, as constitutional amendments, they require a two-thirds vote in both houses and then a statewide referendum vote. I have no doubt that a state-wide referendum on this issue would easily pass. However, getting two-thirds of legislators to vote themselves out of a job is the tough sell.

Such action would probably need to be part of a broader deal supported by leadership of both parties -- perhaps one that included some lengthening of term limits?

There might be a grand bargain here. We need someone to step forward to put these pieces together.

Here is Gov. LePage's chance for some positive leadership.