Downsize the Legislature

Posted May 12, 2009, at 7:24 p.m.

Based on population, Maine has one of the largest House of Representatives in the country. Especially in these difficult economic times, this is unaffordable. Fortunately, lawmakers have realized this and given initial approval to cutting the size of the House. This legislation should be supported by the full Legislature.

Currently, there are 151 House districts in Maine. Each House member represents about 8,400 people. This ranks Maine 45th in the country in terms of the number of people in each House district, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The average is about 25,000 per district, although populous states like California (nearly 460,000 per district) and Texas (with 162,000 per district) skew the average.

Idaho, with a population of 1.5 million, has 70 House districts for about 22,000 people per representative; Hawaii has 51 districts for nearly 1.3 million people for about 25,000 residents per representative. Maine’s population is just over 1.3 million people.

LD 144, as amended, would decrease the House to 131 districts. Each district would represent about 10,000 people, still well below the national average.

After the 2010 census, the boundaries of Maine’s legislative districts will be redrawn. Reducing the number of districts at the same time makes sense.

For 45 years, Rep. John Martin, who has the largest district in the state, has opposed shrinking the Legislature. The Eagle Lake Democrat and member of the Appropriations Committee changed his mind after lawmakers sought advice from the public on how to shrink state spending. Ninety to 95 percent of the people who responded suggested that the Legislature be downsized, he said.

As lawmakers prepare to cut nearly $1 billion from the next budget the public will increasingly ask why the Legislature didn’t cut itself to contribute to the reduction in state spending, Rep. Martin said.

In addition, technological changes — much communication with constituents is now done through e-mail — make it much easier to represent a larger district, something Rep. Martin said he realized after serving in the Senate, where districts are more than three times the size of House districts.

Rep. David Van Wie, who is serving his first term, came to the same conclusion. “It is politically necessary for us to do this,” the Democrat from New Gloucester said. “It shows we get it.” A smaller House would save $1.6 million over two years, he said.

He worked with Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the sponsor of LD 144, to rework the bill to make it more palatable to fellow lawmakers. Originally, the bill would have shrunk the House to 115 members.

Because a change in the state constitution is needed to reduce the size of the House, a public referendum is necessary. This is likely a mere formality given the public sentiment.

Like other levels of government in Maine, the state’s legislative districts are small and therefore more costly than necessary. Passing LD 144 is a small step toward rectifying that.

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