Smaller, Better Legislature

Posted Oct. 06, 2010, at 5:48 p.m.

A recommendation, included in a report on remaking state government, to reduce the size of the state Legislature is not among the document’s more significant proposals, but it has been getting a lot of attention. It is a proposal lawmakers should follow because, while it won’t save a lot of money, it will send an important message that they are serious about shrinking government, starting with their own operations.

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

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, with about 25,000 residents per representative. Maine’s population is just over 1.3 million people.

In its report, “Reinventing Maine Government,” Envision Maine includes several changes in the Legislature to make it more efficient — both in terms of making laws and saving money. One is to shrink the Legislature to 25 senators and 75 House members. “When people traveled by horse and communications were more difficult, it made sense to have many smaller districts,” the report, released last week, says. “With cars, e-mail, telephones and the Internet, it just isn’t necessary.”

The report also suggests that the length of the legislative session be cut in half and that lifetime term limits of 12 years be adopted to prevent the current practices of some lawmakers moving from the House to the Senate and vice versa to stay in office despite term limits. A proposal to limit lawmakers to five bills each is simplistic, but more proposed legislation should be rejected based on substance.

Last year, the Legislature considered a more modest downsizing, but even that was rejected.

A co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Van Wie, who is serving his first term, gave this rationale for the bill: “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.

While the cost savings are not dramatic, 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.

It is time for lawmakers to show they get it.

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.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/06/opinion/smaller-better-legislature/ printed on September 22, 2014