Shrinking the Legislature

Posted Feb. 19, 2011, at 1:59 a.m.

A bill to shrink the size of the Maine Senate should be the starting point of a needed discussion of the best way to reduce the number of lawmakers. This would reduce the cost of running the state Legislature and could improve the quality of work that is done in Augusta.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Republican from Scarborough, has sponsored a bill to reduce the number of state senators from the current 35 to 32, two per county. Such a change would require amending the state constitution. A public hearing on the bill, LD 329, is scheduled for Feb. 23 before the State and Local Government Committee.

Rep. Sirocki’s bill has the right intent, but it focuses on the wrong chamber. Maine’s 35 state senators is in line with the national norm. What we have too many of is state representatives. Maine’s 151 representatives put us in the top seven in terms of the size of the House. Other states with more than 150 House members, such as Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, are much larger, populationwise, than Maine.

In fact, Maine ranks 45th in the country in terms of the number of people in each House district, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Each Maine House member represents about 8,400 people. The average is about 25,000 per district, although populous states such as 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.

Shrinking the number of House districts in Maine is long overdue.

One suggestion that has more than symmetry going for it came from the now-defunct Alliance for Maine’s Future. The group proposed 33 Senate districts, each of which would contain three House districts for a total of 99 House seats. Such a change was strongly favored in an informal poll by the alliance last year.

A year earlier, 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.

At the same time, the length of terms of state senators should be increased to differentiate it from the House. Maine is one of only 12 states that has state senators serve for only two years. The other states have four-year Senate terms.

A longer term would allow state senators to gain more insight into the workings of government and the legislative process. This should result in fewer bills and more informed decisions.

It also would make the state Senate a better springboard to higher office, something Maine lacks with only one statewide elected office, the governorship.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/02/19/opinion/shrinking-the-legislature/ printed on October 2, 2014