AUGUSTA, Maine — Attempts to change or eliminate Maine’s term limits law, which is one of those proposals that returns to the Legislature session after session, are probably dead again after encountering roadblocks from lawmakers this week.

Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake has been in the Legislature since 1964 — with a couple of short breaks — and is the self-proclaimed “poster child” for the implementation of the 1993 term limits law, which openly was designed to oust him after he served 10 terms as House speaker.

The fact he sought to abolish term limits this year — and that he had the support of Gov. Paul LePage — suggested this finally could be the year to make a change.

But Martin’s bill was rejected with a 10-1 vote in the State and Local Government Committee on Monday, after Martin suggested to committee leaders they kill the bill if they were going to pursue “unreasonable” amendments, such as lengthening terms for senators but not for representatives.

“The House will never go for that,” Martin said Tuesday in an interview. “The only way this is going to work is if both houses vote together for four-year terms.”

That’s a tough and possibly unlikely process, but Martin, who is back in the House after a two-year absence caused by an election defeat in 2012, hasn’t given up.

The law limits Maine legislators to four consecutive terms (eight years) representing the same district, but many lawmakers have jumped from the House to the Senate or vice versa to extend their tenures in the State House. The law addresses consecutive terms but has no provision on cumulative legislative service.

Why were term limits imposed and why do some people now want to repeal them?

Implementing term limits wasn’t just about John Martin. There was a feeling among some that lawmakers who had been in the Legislature for decades had too much power. Twenty years at the House rostrum and a ballot-counting scandal made Martin the obvious target. Maine became the first state to impose term limits.

There has been a swing in support away from term limits. There have been arguments that over the years, tenure, experience and institutional knowledge in the Legislature have eroded, which has resulted in a bevy of problems. For one, lawmakers have less time to become policy experts in a given area. Then, just when they become experts, they are forced out of office by term limits. Additionally, new lawmakers trying to make a name for themselves propose bills that already have been tried and rejected in recent years. On the other hand, the churn of new lawmakers is seen by some as a breeding ground for new approaches to old problems.

It’s tough to become a long-term leader. Anyone vying for legislative leadership has his or her first two-year term for orientation, the second term for heavy policy work and the third and fourth term to rise to leadership. Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick is in his second term at the rostrum, making him the first lawmaker since the implementation of term limits to serve as House speaker for two consecutive terms. Unless he runs for Senate next year, Eves will be out of the Legislature, though under Maine law he could come back after a term away.

Beth Edmonds, a Democrat from Freeport, is the only lawmaker to serve as Senate president for two consecutive terms since the implementation of term limits.

Parliamentary procedure isn’t easy. But it’s crucial to the legislative process. Committee chairs, particularly from the Senate — because the Senate has only 35 members compared to the House’s 151 — sometimes are freshman lawmakers. It can take months for someone to become comfortable with the process. This was evident, ironically, Monday in the State and Local Government Committee during debate on the term limits law. Members were proposing amendments and motions when there already were other motions pending and lawmakers had to consult with the committee’s staff multiple times about how to move forward.

Term limits increase the power of lobbyists and the executive branch. New lawmakers often have not been tuned in to policy debates from past years, which means they have to be re-educated. That task often falls to lobbyists, who have been on the job for years, and it means bills get reintroduced session after session. The same is true of state departments in the executive branch. Not only can long-time state employees influence the reintroduction of bills, but a lot of time and resources that otherwise could be spent on administration or other projects go into educating the Legislature.

Why is it so hard to change term limit laws?

Many voters see it as self-serving for lawmakers. Lawmakers voting to extend term limits, on a basic level, appear to many Mainers to be a vote in favor of preserving their jobs in a state where opportunities for millworkers and others outside the retail sector have declined for years. And articulating the reasons for and against term limits is a debate that requires a deep understanding of the issues and effects.

There is still a lot of support for maintaining term limits. Dissatisfaction among the electorate with the performance of the Legislature is a factor. There also are many who think Maine’s citizen Legislature works best when no single person or small group can amass too much power. Be it perception or reality, someone staying in a position of power for years on end just raises suspicion about cronyism and back-room deals.

Why should we care what John Martin thinks?

He knows the legislative process as well as anyone in Maine does. Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying Martin is a leader in the Legislature — with or without a title. He may be the most influential lawmaker in Maine during the past 50 years, and he’s one of the few Democrats who has open lines of communication with LePage. He’s demonstrated, by jumping from House to Senate and back again, that term limits won’t keep him out of office as long as the majority of his constituents support him. And it’s not just term limits he’s concerned with. Martin also is sponsoring a bill to increase pay for lawmakers. For him, paying lawmakers more isn’t about rewarding them; it’s about making service in the Legislature economically feasible for more Mainers.

“It’s time for people to talk about it,” Martin told the BDN. “Anybody who knows anything about the legislative process knows that it’s not working. As more and more time goes by, you have less and less experienced legislators with no history of what’s going on. The history comes from the executive branch departments or the lobbyists.”

Martin said Maine also should consider reducing the size of the Legislature or combining the House and Senate into one body, as well as taking steps to eliminate the submission of duplicative or redundant bills. But he doesn’t think any successful initiative along those lines is likely to come out of the State House.

“The only thing I see that might be doable is if there’s enough public pressure,” he said. “We need to get the public together in the off session and sit down and talk about this. It’s going to have to come from the ground up, in some way, shape or form.”


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.