August 20, 2019
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What have term limits accomplished for Maine?

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Should Maine legislators have term limits? A bill, LD 182, proposed by state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, spurred debate this week about a law that limits legislators to no more than four consecutive terms, or eight years, of service.

Maine is one of 15 states that have term limits for state legislators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine is the only state in New England that has term limits.

While Maine’s term limits law is 22 years old, the effort to establish term limits stretches further back. Republican Rep. Hugh Bowden of Brooklin proposed the first legislation establish limits — five, two-year terms — in 1979. The bill went nowhere. Other attempts in 1983, 1989 and 1991 were no more successful.

Finally, in 1993 — the year after a Martin aide was accused of tampering with ballot boxes in two close House elections — term limits were passed by citizen’s initiative to combat “careerism” in the Legislature with the support of 67 percent of voters.

Since term limits were established, attempts to weaken them have gained little traction. In 2007, Martin helped get a measure on the ballot that would have raised the term limit from four to six two-year terms. Voters rejected that effort.

Legislators aren’t the only state officers subject to term limits: The attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are also subject to four, two-year terms; the state auditor can serve a maximum of two four-year terms.

Martin’s bill makes no mention of repealing term limits for these constitutional officers.

While term limits have remained in effect, a number of legislators have sidestepped them by switching between the House and the Senate every eight years. Martin, who has been in office since 1964 and was House speaker when the term limits law passed, has moved between the two bodies since term limits were enacted.

But 22 years later, what have the effects of term limits been?

Without institutional memory, the Legislature’s workload has increased. Lawmakers in favor of repealing term limits have said that a lack of “institutional memory” has created a knowledge vacuum. Matthew C. Moen and Kenneth T. Palmer noted in a 2003 article in the Maine Policy Review that because of declining institutional memory the Legislature’s workload has increased. Why? The authors found that novice lawmakers often submitted “repeater bills” unaware that such legislation had previously failed and why. Another effect is that in the absence of senior members, some legislation that passes with widespread support later loses backing and is defunded or repealed. For example, a child care subsidies program championed by former state House Speaker Steven Rowe experienced repeated funding cuts after term limits forced him and other supporters of the program out of office.

The clout of committees has been diminished. “Observers of American legislatures have long recognized the most critical work in a legislative assembly often occurs in its standing committees,” write Moen and Palmer. As more members of Maine’s Legislature served longer terms, the role of committees grew. This was because with more experience lawmakers gained more expertise in specific subject areas, such as tax or agricultural policy. Term limits, according to the authors, weakened the committee system as turnover rose among committee chairs, diminishing their influence. This effect, the authors argue, has been felt disproportionately in the more powerful committees, such as Appropriations, because they generally attracted more senior legislators, and there are fewer senior legislators around in the age of term limits.

The Legislature has seen an increase in partisanship because of term limits. With an influx of freshmen lawmakers, research found that division was more commonplace. “As novices stream into the institution, they may be less willing to accept traditional norms of compromise and conciliation,” Moen and Palmer write. Nowhere was this more evident than at the committee level. The authors said that because of “the egalitarian and participatory practices” of the Legislature, even a single dissenting member can drag out the process of approving or rejecting a bill. And less experienced legislators were more likely to cast a lone dissenting vote, drawing out the process of killing a bill with little likelihood of passing. This, the authors said, can “consume the [Legislature’s] scarce resources.”

Term limits failed to promote diversity in the Legislature. There was a hope that, by enacting term limits, more women and younger Mainers would be elected to legislative office. But a 2004 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found the number of women holding office in Maine has largely remained steady — in 1993, 32 percent were women; in 2004, 27 percent were women; and in 2013, 29 percent of legislators were women. The Legislature didn’t get any younger, either — in 1993, the average age of legislators was 50; in 2004, the average age was 53; and in 2014, at the start of the 127th Legislature, the average age was 54.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report gave the wrong name of the former state representative from Brooklin. It is Hugh Bowden, not Brown.


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