Smaller Can be Better

Posted June 01, 2009, at 6:57 p.m.

If there are two things we know lawmakers like it is claiming they are voting a certain way because their constituents want them to and (apparently oblivious to the contradiction) putting tough decisions out to referendum to “let the voters decide.” So, you would think passage of LD 144 would be a slam dunk.

You’d be wrong, of course, because passing LD 144 means some legislators will be out of a job.

The bill, as amended, would shrink the Maine House of Representatives from 151 to 131 members, saving about $1.6 million over two years. Because this would require a change in the state constitution, the smaller House would have to be approved by voters at the polls.

Although not scientific, a recent poll on the Bangor Daily News Web site found that 92 percent of respondents supported the measure, one of the most lopsided results since the online survey began.

Beyond the facts that the public strongly supports it and voters will get to have their say at the ballot box, there are compelling factual reasons to support the change.

Based on population, Maine has one of the largest House of Representatives in the country. Especially in these difficult economic times, this is unaffordable.

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 such as Cali-fornia (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.

If LD 144 were passed, each House member would represent about 10,000 people, still well below the national average. In an era when most communication is done electronically, a larger district would still be manageable. Legislative district maps will be redrawn after the 2010 census, so making the change now is timely.

Early last month, the House strongly supported the change by a 122-23 vote. Last week, however, many House members changed their minds and a second vote — 86-58 — was well short of the required two-thirds approval.

Representatives who voted against the bill cited the heavier workload that would come with serving a bigger district and concerns about the balance of power between the House and Senate. In the parlance of politics, these are smokescreens.

LD 144 passed the Senate 30-5 on Monday. It now goes back to the House, where lawmakers should return to their senses and pass it with a strong two-thirds vote.

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