Maine legislators are again considering a bill that would extend their terms in elected office from two years to four years. As amended, the bill, LD 489, sponsored by Rep. John Schneck, D-Bangor, would prompt a statewide referendum to change the Maine Constitution to lengthen legislative terms beginning in 2016, but retain the limit of eight consecutive years in the same office.
The proposal won approval from the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee and now must pass with two-thirds majorities in the Maine House and Senate to trigger a constitutional amendment referendum. Since 1990, at least 15 similar constitutional amendment proposals to create four-year legislative terms have failed in the Legislature.
Unless the bill is amended again to apply the lengthened term limits exclusively to Maine senators, this one should be rejected, too. A reasonable compromise would extend Maine Senate terms to four years, recognizing that the Legislature’s 35-member upper body could become a more deliberative chamber that anchors state government during partisan turbulence.
Meanwhile, biennial elections in the House, whose 151 members represent much smaller geographic areas, would retain that chamber’s ability to react quickly to grass-roots shifts in public sentiment about state government’s direction, as voters demonstrated in 2010 and 2012.
Three lawmakers — Schneck, Rep. Helen Rankin of Hiram and Rep. Roberta Beavers of South Berwick — testified in favor of the LD 489 during a March 18 public hearing on the bill. They suggested that holding legislative elections every four years, in concurrence with Maine’s gubernatorial election, would free legislators from a biennial focus on campaigning to devote more time to lawmaking. Beavers also argued that switching to four-year terms would save as much as $1.5 million in Maine Clean Election Act funds.
Those arguments are reasonable, but they rely too heavily on the perspective of legislators. Instead, we suggest that legislators retain two-year terms for the Maine House but consider extending Maine Senate terms to four years, as most states do. Staggering Senate elections rather than aligning all 35 with the gubernatorial election also would promote stability and establish institutional memory within the smaller, upper chamber of the Legislature.
More important, switching all legislative terms to four years would, at best, provide indirect benefits to voters — and only if the premise that less time campaigning would make elected officials better lawmakers proves true. That potential benefit fails to offset the risk that extending House terms to four years would diminish a level of accountability to constituents that elections ensure.
Converting to a system with less frequent House elections also threatens to reduce everyday Mainers’ participation in the most accessible aspect of the electoral process, thereby giving voters less say in how their government functions. While there would be fewer elections to spend money on, the stakes in those elections would be higher, leading to more concentrated campaign spending that would undermine two of the goals of the Maine Clean Election Act: reducing the role that money plays in elections and opening legislative races to more people.
Any changes to Maine’s election system must yield tangible benefits for voters. Staggered four-year terms in the Senate would provide a framework in which members of the upper chamber could escape the partisan debate that comes with biennial elections to develop expertise on complex policy questions that carry over from one Legislature to the next. Retaining two-year terms in the House would allow it to continue to function as the people’s chamber, reacting quickly to changes in public sentiment.