AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill to make Maine the second state with a single-chamber legislature won initial House approval on Tuesday, but its prospects remained uncertain as it lacked the two-thirds support it needs for final passage.
The bill, approved by a 78-66 vote, proposes to amend the state Constitution to combine the Senate and the House of Representatives. The unicameral legislature would have 151 members, who would be referred to as senators as they are in Nebraska, the only state with a single-chamber system.
If approved by voters, Maine’s new body would be seated in 2016, after redistricting that’s scheduled to take place in 2013.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Linda Valentino, said Maine’s present system was adopted during an age when slower communications and difficult travel restricted lawmakers’ access to their constituents.
“It is no longer 1820,” the Saco Democrat said, referring to the year Maine became a state. Valentino reminded representatives that their vote could not change the present House-Senate system and pleaded to let voters make the final choice.
She also questioned the cost of running the 35-member Senate, saying a single chamber could govern more efficiently.
“Do the people of Maine need to continue to spend almost $11 million for a second body? Do we really need to have 28 full-time staff and seven part-time employees to staff 35 members? Do we really need to spend over $300,000 every budget cycle to support one member from the [Senate] when less than 10 percent of that $300,000 actually goes to their salary and expenses?” Valentino asked. The $11 million represents a two-year cost.
An opponent, Republican Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, said a unicameral legislature would give each lawmaker more constituent work, requiring more staff assistance and expenses.
“All we will do is require more staff and more cost, and we will be giving more power to the staff,” Fredette said.
Others warned that passage would weaken representation of Maine residents in rural counties, which would lose more seats than those in more urbanized counties.
Passage would “effectively eliminate another layer of representation,” said Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-Cape Neddick.
The bill has come up in Maine as recently as two years ago when it drew 89 votes of support, still below the number needed on a final tally to send it to voters. This time, the measure drew an 8-5 vote of support by the State and Local Government Committee. The bill faces further House and Senate votes.