A more efficient Legislature

Posted Nov. 22, 2010, at 8:51 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:29 a.m.

With voters having given them complete control of the State House for the first time in almost 50 years, Republicans have the opportunity to remake much of state government. The Legislature would be a good place to start.

Though the Legislature is supposed to be the people’s voice in Augusta, it has seemed, under Democratic rule, to be completely disconnected from the people it is there to represent. In the past four years alone, Mainers have voted down a slew of legislative proposals, from an extension of legislative term limits and an amendment of Maine’s marriage statutes to a series of tax increases designed to fund the Dirigo Health program.

Worse still, despite crippling state budget shortfalls, the Legislature has grown bloated with excessive staff and has seen its own spending skyrocket. Under the Democrats, the legislative budget has grown from $19 million in 2002 to $26 million this year.

The good news is that making the Legislature more effective and efficient is relatively simple.

Though it has become fashionable to suggest that the Legislature is too big, the institution’s primary problem is not too many lawmakers, but too much law. Every session, legislators must contend with an avalanche of bills, most of which go nowhere. During the 2009 legislative session alone, the House and Senate considered nearly 1,500 bills, 40 percent of which were killed at the committee level by a unanimous vote.

A simple solution to this problem would be to allow the legislative committees to decide which bills will be considered and which will not. In Idaho, legislators are required to present bill concepts to the committees before formally drafting them. Promising ideas with broad support move forward, while bad ideas are cut off before they clog up the legislative process.

What should the Legislature do with all the free time created by a reduction in the number of bills? For one thing, lawmakers should shorten the length of each legislative session by a least month. By national standards, Maine has ridiculously long legislative sessions. Lawmakers should cut those sessions short, complete their work promptly and go home.

Legislators could make far better use of their session time if they took seriously the oversight and investigative authority they have. Today, substantive legislative review of state government operations is virtually nonexistent. State departments and agencies are required to provide various reports to the Legislature, almost none of which are scrutinized carefully. When the Legislature does want to investigate a matter further, it will often create some kind of commission or task force, whose findings typically are ignored.

Under Maine law, the Legislature has considerable investigative authority, including the power to undertake congressional-style investigations, complete with subpoenas and sworn testimony. It rarely, if ever, uses these powers, though the time may have come for thorough reviews of controversial state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services.

If nothing else, Republicans should undertake a concerted effort to make the Legislature far more transparent. Simply put, too much of what takes place happens quickly, without a great deal of public knowledge and with even less public input.

The legislative leadership, for instance, has the power to suspend public notice requirements, allowing a committee to take action on a bill with no public notice whatsoever. Furthermore, with a simple majority vote, the Legislature can take up a bill at the chamber level without it ever having had a public hearing at all. Last year, the Legislature did this with 20 pieces of legislation, including bills on voting rights, medical records and tax reform.

The Legislature does do a good job putting the text of bills it is considering online, but nearly every bill is amended at some point in the legislative process, sometimes more than once. Amendments are often drafted quickly, and it is not uncommon for legislators to be asked to vote on an amendment while it is still warm from the photocopier. Republicans should insist that not only all bills but all bill amendments be posted online well before votes are taken.

Changes like these would do much to improve the productivity and effectiveness of the Legislature, and because they have the votes, Republicans can make most of these changes relatively easily. Doing so would demonstrate to voters that what they wanted to have happen is happening; that a new day really has dawned in Augusta.

Stephen Bowen of Rockport directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His blog can be found at www.GreatSchoolsforME.org.

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