POLL QUESTION

In tough budget times, lawmakers weigh shrinking House, Senate

Posted April 08, 2011, at 2:12 p.m.
Last modified April 12, 2011, at 5:13 p.m.
Eric Zelz

Today's poll

Should Maine have fewer lawmakers?

Yes
No

AUGUSTA, Maine — As the debate over state employee benefits and the cost of government intensifies in the State House, some lawmakers are hoping their colleagues have the political will to shrink the size of the Legislature and its multimillion-dollar price tag.

With 186 lawmakers — 151 in the House and 35 in the Senate — Maine has the 10th largest legislature in the nation, despite ranking 40th in total population.

But cutting the number of lawmakers is no easy task. The size of Maine’s Legislature is written into the state constitution, meaning any changes would have to be approved by voters at the ballot box. The one exception is the size of the Senate, which could be reduced to 31 or 33 members without a constitutional change.

Previous efforts to give voters a chance to trim or slash the size of the House, Senate — or both — have been introduced in each legislative session since 2003 but have yet to survive the political gauntlet.

Proponents of a slimmed-down Legislature came close two years ago when both chambers voted in support of differing versions of the bill. But despite bipartisan support, the measure ultimately failed when the two bodies couldn’t agree on which version to pass.

Given the shift to Republican control of the Legislature and the focus on smaller government, could 2011 be the year that lawmakers allow voters to weigh in on the issue?

Supporters of the idea are hopeful. Several longtime lawmakers are doubtful. Others, meanwhile, say it is too early to tell.

“There are a lot of new members, so I don’t have a sense for that,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

Although often a target of critics of government spending, the legislative branch consumes less than 1 percent of Maine’s General Fund — or roughly $51.4 million in the current, estimated $5.8 billion two-year budget.

Leaders of the new Republican-controlled Legislature have pledged to ensure that the legislative branch sets an example by reducing spending at a time when many state-run programs are facing budget cuts and state employees and public service retirees are facing higher costs.

“I’m confident we will be able to do that,” House Speaker RobertNutting, R-Oakland, said in an interview. “My intention is to make cuts wherever we can” without harming the operations of the citizen Legislature.

The price tag

As part-time lawmakers, each legislator is paid a salary of $13,852 for the first, longer year of the session and $10,082 for the second, shorter year. Lawmakers also receive health insurance and are entitled to either $38 per day for housing or 44 cents per mile plus $32 per day for meals during the legislative session.

Additionally, lawmakers who serve at least five years receive retirement benefits. But due to term limits and the high rate of turnover, only 131 people are receiving legislative retirement benefits, which averaged $152 per month as of June 2010.

There is enormous variance in compensation for state lawmakers across the nation, not to mention differences in how often lawmakers in each state meet. Such differences make comparisons difficult, both in terms of size of the legislative body and lawmaker compensation.

Neighboring New Hampshire, for instance, has the nation’s largest legislature at 424 members, including 400 in the House alone. But Live Free or Die state legislators earn just $200 for a 2-year term, according to figures supplied by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Alaska’s House and Senate, on the other hand, have just 60 seats combined but Alaskan lawmakers are paid $50,400 a year plus a sizable per diem.

When it comes to compensation, Maine is in the lower tier, according to the NCSL.

Massachusetts pays their state lawmakers $58,237.15 a year, plus additional reimbursements, but Bay State legislators are considered full time.

California, another state with a professional or full-time legislature, paid the most last year at $95,291 plus a hefty per diem. But that is down from $118,000 a year, a self-imposed reduction in a state that has faced budget shortfalls many times larger than Maine’s entire operating budget. New Mexico lawmakers, meanwhile, earn no salary but a $159 per diem.

In Maine, lawmakers typically receive automatic, annual pay increases known as cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, that are tied to an inflation index, similar to the system for retired state employees. Over the past two decades, the COLA has ranged from a high of 5.5 percent to 1 percent.

Responding to tight budget times, Maine lawmakers have occasionally voted to suspend the automatic increases. Such a suspension was approved last year.

Morgan Cullen, a policy specialist at NCSL, said most lawmakers nationwide are sensitive to perceptions regarding compensation levels, so there have not been many increases since the recession began in 2008. In fact, several states have joined California in reducing lawmaker pay.

“Even when it is not during a recession, it is a very contentious political issue,” Cullen said. “You always get a lot of negative press.”

At the same time, Cullen argues that many state lawmakers are underpaid given the hours and demands of the position. Having adequate compensation actually helps because it ensures that people of all economic stripes can afford to run for political office.

“Nobody thinks you should get into politics because you want to get rich,” he said. “But you can’t have a system where only the rich can get into politics.”

Is smaller better?

At least four measures are pending that would reduce the size of the Legislature.

The most sweeping, LD 804 by Saco Democratic Rep. Linda Valentino, seeks a constitutional amendment to make Maine the only state in the nation other than Nebraska that has a unicameral — or one-chambered — legislature.

Valentino argues switching to a single-chamber legislature by eliminating the state Senate would save the state more than $11 million between 2016 and 2018. But critics say there is a reason 49 states plus Congress have two chambers, and that is because the system allows for more checks and balances and better representation.

Another measure, LD 40 sponsored by Republican Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington, proposes a constitutional amendment to shrink the size of the House membership from 151 to 131, saving the state more than $1.6 million over several years.

Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, has introduced a bill, LD 153, that would reduce the size of the House and the Senate by roughly one-third. Under Hinck’s proposal, the House would have 101 members while the Senate would have 23 members.

Hinck acknowledges the proposal wouldn’t save enormous sums compared to the total General Fund. A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates General Fund savings at $4.9 million for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, plus an additional $1 million in savings due to lower demand for public campaign financing through the Clean Elections Act.

But the savings would be annual, Hinck said. And then there is the message that lawmakers would send by applying the budget scalpel to themselves just as they are to other departments and programs throughout state government.

“I think the symbolism of it is important,” Hinck said. “This Legislature has said to constituents that there are very difficult cuts to be made: cuts being forced on social services, being forced on education, on infrastructure.”

Asked his thoughts on his bill’s prospects, Hinck said he wasn’t sure but he is optimistic, especially considering the mantra of smaller, cheaper government that the new GOP majority brought to the State House.

“I feel the bill fits right in the wheelhouse of the 125th Legislature,” he said.

A fourth bill, LD 669, that would reduce the size of the Legislature is not geared at saving money at all, but rather at improving government. Rep. Michael Carey’s bill proposes fewer lawmakers but longer sessions, which the Lewiston Democrat believes would allow legislators to spend more time on the major issues affecting Mainers’ lives.

Cutting the cost

Reducing the size of the Maine Legislature was just one recommendation of a report entitled “Reinventing Maine Government” that was released last year by a think tank called “Envision Maine.” The report calls for switching to a 75-member House and a 25-member Senate.

The organization’s president, Alan Caron, said the Legislature should take the lead if it wants others in state government to become more efficient and productive.

“I think Maine people would, without hesitation, make the Legislature smaller,” Caron said. “The reason we have 186 districts is because of how far you could ride a horse. We now have phones and cars and the Internet.”

But before shrinking the size of the Legislature, lawmakers should impose a limit of five bills per member in order to avoid the current crush of attempting to squeeze in 2,000 to 3,000 measures during the session, often resulting in the most complex and pressing issues getting short shrift.

“If nothing else were done, getting a handle on the number of bills is the most important thing that could be done,” Caron said.

Envision Maine’s report also recommends shortening the legislative session and imposing lifetime term limits of 12 years for lawmakers, thereby eliminating the chamber hopping that has become fairly common. Shrinking the Legislature is nonetheless an overdue and much-desired improvement in this day and age, however, he said.

House Speaker Nutting agreed that if the issue were put to a statewide vote, the majority of Mainers likely would say they want a smaller Legislature. But Nutting said he believes the real issue is a perception about how lawmakers are using state resources, an issue that helped his party win control of the State House last November for the first time in decades.

“I don’t think people care as much about how many legislators are here,” Nutting said. “They care about how we are spending their money and how wisely we spend their money.”

To that end, both Nutting and Raye, the Republican Senate President, have vowed to cut the legislative branch’s budget this year.

Although discussions on the legislative budget are only just beginning, Raye said he has already started by eliminating two positions in the Senate President’s office, resulting in a 23 percent savings for that office.

Raye said such changes were intended to set a tone headed into a legislative session expected to once again be dominated by budget concerns. Additionally, Raye said he believes lawmakers must be willing to bear the same types of burdens that could be placed on state workers and retirees.

“If we are talking about increasing the percentage state employees contribute to their retirement or changes to their health care or whatever, it is I believe imperative that we include the Legislature,” Raye said.

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