A smaller state Legislature has been a cause championed for years by various Republican legislators and gubernatorial candidates. The GOP now controls both houses of the Legislature and the Blaine House. It’s time for the party to put its votes where its mouth has been.
Ultimately, Maine voters will make the call, because shrinking the Legislature requires a constitutional amendment, which can only be enacted by a referendum. But the new Legislature and the new governor can show leadership by passing legislation enabling this question to be put before voters. Since a two-thirds vote of the Legislature is required to forward any constitutional amendment to the people, the proposal will not carry without Democratic legislators supporting it. They should endorse the amendment, or risk reinforcing the belief among voters that their party is invested in big government.
Timing is critical, and the time is ripe. With the 2010 census complete, the state soon will begin the arduous task of redistricting legislative districts. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap reports that the final district lines are expected to be drawn in 2013. So now is the best time to undertake a downsizing of the Legislature. Secretary Dunlap said a sensible approach might be to conduct the two processes in tandem — a referendum vote on reducing the size of the Legislature could be held November 2011, and the redistricting would follow, creating corresponding new districts.
Though proponents of a smaller Legislature often start by pointing to savings, the potential for changing the legislative culture and a more efficient legislative process, less given to fits and starts, is the desired result. Fewer frivolous and poorly thought-out bills would see the light of day. The quality of candidates seeking legislative office might rise with the stature of both the House and Senate posts increasing.
One attractive proposal would cut the 35-member Senate to 33 members and the 151-member House of Representatives to 99 members. This “33, 99” plan would bring a simple, clean organization to state government, with each Senate district including three House districts. Each Senate district then would have a four-member delegation that could work to represent the region.
Even after cutting seats, the ratio of population to representatives still would be among the lowest in the nation. Currently, each House member represents about 8,400 people, putting Maine at 45th in the country for the number of people in each House district. The average is about 25,000 per district. Idaho, with a population of 1.5 million, has 70 House districts for about 22,000 people per representative. And Hawaii, with a population very close to Maine’s 1.3 million, has 51 districts, with each seat representing 25,000 residents.
The public support for downsizing the Legislature is great. Is the Republican majority ready to meet the demand?