The fact that John Martin is still in the Legislature is proof that term limits don’t work. Martin, who has served in the Legislature for most of the last 50 years, is sponsoring legislation to do away with term limits.
In part because of Martin’s involvement, and also because of the mistaken notion that term limits have improved the Legislature, this proposal, LD 182, faces an uphill battle. It shouldn’t.
Republicans in the State House first proposed term-limit legislation in 1979. The effort gained steam during Martin’s unprecedented string of 10 terms as Speaker of the House and his 1992 ballot-gate scandal. After a successful 1993 citizen’s initiative to impose term limits, Maine was the first state where term limits went into effect, in 1996. In addition to cracking a Democratic hold on control of the Legislature, the aim was to decrease the power of incumbents and to encourage new people with new ideas to run for office.
While term limits have increased turnover in the Legislature, there are many negative consequences. In a book published in 2005, three one-time University of Maine professors took a comprehensive look at Maine’s term limits. They found many detrimental effects, ranging from committee chairs who don’t know how to run meetings to a more than tripling of the number of bills that have only one supporting vote in committee, resulting in a floor debate and other time-consuming administrative procedures for bills that will ultimately die. Professors Kenneth Palmer, Richard Powell and Matthew Moen also found that the number of women in the State House dropped slightly after term limits were enacted. Worse, many House members (including Martin) simply moved to the Senate when their eight years were up, essentially rendering meaningless Maine’s limits of four consecutive terms in the House and Senate. Of the 15 states that currently have legislative term limits, six impose lifetime limits on service.
Worse, lawmakers reported having to rely more on legislative staff members and lobbyists for a sense of history, Palmer, Powell and Moen wrote in their 2005 book, “Changing Members: The Maine Legislature in the Era of Term Limits.” Term limits also increased the power of the executive branch, especially as department and agency leaders could outlast, outwit and outmaneuver lawmakers.
A review by Governing Magazine found that with term limits, lawmakers were more inclined to worry about short-term problems. “In rocky times, seasoned legislators may be best suited to pushing through the difficult solutions that lie ahead,” the magazine said in 2011.
This short-term thinking also increases partisanship because there is less interest in compromising and building bipartisan relationships, Governing wrote. New lawmakers who don’t know the ropes in the state capitol are more likely to rely on their party caucus members for guidance.
Two states, Idaho and Utah, have abolished their term limits for some of these reasons. Courts in four other states invalidated them.
The oddity of term limits, Powell said in an interview this week, is that they have made “politics the only endeavor in life where less experience is preferable than more.”
Gov. Paul LePage also dislikes term limits — he said last year they should be thrown “out the window” — because they allow the election of “young people with firm agendas.”
Because of term limits, Martin did sit out the 118th session of the Legislature, the first session he missed since 1964. He returned in 1998. In 2012, he lost his bid to be re-elected to the House. (He won the seat back in 2014).
Turns out, the ballot box can accomplish the same thing as term limits, without the negative consequences.