Thirty-three, Ninety-nine

Posted May 18, 2010, at 6:03 p.m.

Gubernatorial candidates are nearly unanimous in their belief that state government must be down-sized. The bulk of Maine state spending is tied to the Department of Health and Human Services and K-12 public education. But reducing the size of the Legislature can achieve savings and efficiencies and, perhaps most importantly, restrict government’s instinct to invent new programs.

One proposal, from the Alliance for Maine’s Future, would create 33 Senate districts, down from the current 35. Within each of those districts, three House districts would be created. The result would be a House of Representatives with 99 members, down from the current 151, and a Senate of 33 members, down from 35. This change was strongly favored in a recent informal poll by the alliance.

A counter-argument is that Maine voters would have to travel farther and perhaps wait longer to get in touch with their senator or representative. True enough. But with modern communication technology such as e-mail, distance and time are less important factors.

Even after cutting seats, the ratio of population to representative still would be among the lowest in the nation. Currently, each House member represents about 8,400 people, putting Maine at 45th in the country for the number of people in each House district, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The average is about 25,000 per district. Idaho, with a population of 1.5 million, has 70 House districts for about 22,000 people per representative. And Hawaii, with a population very close to Maine’s 1.3 million, has 51 districts, with each seat representing 25,000 residents.

A year ago, the Legislature considered but rejected a bill that would have reduced the House from 151 seats to 131 seats, bringing a projected savings of $1.6 million over two years. That change would have created House districts with 10,000 residents.

The “33, 99” proposal would result in 39,393 residents in each Senate district and 13,131 residents in each House district.

The cost savings are not dramatic, but the potential for changing the legislative culture is great. The quality of candidates seeking legislative office might rise with the stature of both the House and Senate posts increasing. Committee sizes would shrink, allowing members to better focus. And with fewer legislators, fewer ill-considered ideas would end up in the legislative hopper.

The public support for downsizing the Legislature is great. The legislative campaign season soon will be under way in earnest, and voters can insist candidates take a position on this question.

Another remake the next Legislature should consider is creating a lieutenant governor position. Only seven states do not have this post. In 25 states, the lieutenant governor runs with the governor for the offices, just as a vice presidential candidate runs with a presidential candidate. In 18 states, the lieutenant governor post is separate from the governor, so voters can elect a Republican to one and a Democrat to the other.

Critics will see another office costing the state money, but the lieutenant governor post could provide a training ground for gubernatorial candidates.

The times are right for such action, but it won’t happen without voters insisting on it.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/05/18/opinion/thirtythree-ninetynine/ printed on July 30, 2014