AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers have been debating term limits for far longer than those limits allow legislators to serve in their current positions.
The latest incarnation of that debate — coupled with a call to substantially raise pay for legislators and the governor — inflamed passions at the State House again Monday, when the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee held hearings on two bills that aim to change the system.
Both bills were introduced by state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who argued that term limits rob the Legislature of too much institutional knowledge while poor compensation prevents quality people from running for office.
“I think there is a vacuum here as a result of that process,” said Martin, whose two-decade tenure as speaker of the House helped prompt passage of the term-limits law implemented in 1993. “This issue is one that I think needs to be discussed.”
Martin, who has served in the Legislature for most of the past 50 years, acknowledged during Monday’s hearing that he was the “poster child” for term limits. At the time the law took effect, some proponents said it was designed specifically to push Martin out of office.
Martin remained in the Legislature by moving from the House to the Senate and back after reaching the four-term limit in each chamber. After losing a re-election bid for his House seat in 2012, Martin won the seat back last year. He argued Monday that if lawmakers are past their prime, they can be removed by voters at any time.
“They can make the decision about whether or not to keep you there,” Martin said.
Maine is one of 15 states with legislative term limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, said term limits takes too much power away from the legislative branch of government.
“The reasons that term limits are not good for democracy is that they allow the staff to have too much power and it empowers lobbyists,” he said. “It tips the checks and balances between the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
Babbidge later said that he leans toward supporting term limits, though he believes there should be limits on how long someone should allowed to serve in a leadership position.
Among those supporting Martin’s bill was Polly Ward, a trustee for the League of Women Voters.
“Term limits violate the ultimate rights of voters to choose candidates who best represent their districts and the state of Maine,” she said.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage last year criticized legislative term limits, arguing that it opened the Legislature to “young people with firm agendas” that do not reflect the long-term interests of all Mainers.
Rick Bennett, a former Senate president and current chairman of the Maine Republican Party, also spoke in opposition to Martin’s repeal effort, though he said he was speaking on his own behalf and not for any organization.
“Any attempt to repeal this citizen-initiated law by fiat from Augusta will be met by sure defeat from the voters,” Bennett said.
In another bill, Martin proposes raising the salary of the governor from $70,000 to $120,000, and the salary for legislators from about $14,000 to $24,000. Neither of those changes would take place during the current legislative session.
Both bills will be debated by the committee in the coming weeks before they are sent to the full Legislature for consideration.