Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Richard A. Bennett of Oxford was elected to the Maine Senate earlier this month. He served as president of the Senate in 2001-02 when the chamber had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and one Independent.

As the Maine Legislature convenes, we will face many challenges. Whether it is holding sessions at the Augusta Civic Center, convening hybrid committee meetings by Zoom, or inviting testimony digitally, there is no question that the 130th Legislature will be forced to innovate.

This is not a bad thing — in fact it is long overdue. For years, the Maine Legislature has wallowed in dysfunction, wasting the precious time and talent of its members — and the public. As a consequence, it has always played second fiddle in policymaking to the executive branch, regardless of which party is in charge.

As a former Senate president returning to office after a career reforming business, I have thoughts about how we might fix legislative dysfunction. Before we pass the stale, old rules that govern our operations (as is typically done in opening hours of the new Legislature), let’s pause and consider new approaches.

Appropriations process

The Legislature relies on three senators and 10 representatives, constituted as the Appropriations Committee, to decide spending for nearly the entire state government. With the state budget shortfall projected at $1.4 billion, we should consider expanding the committee to 21 — five senators and 16 house members to broaden the expertise and help build consensus before the budget is sent to the House and Senate for consideration.

Executive oversight

At the same time, we should take the first four to six weeks of the legislative session to meet only in committees to perform an essential legislative task that in Maine is done very poorly — oversight of the executive branch. Let each policy committee learn deeply about the agencies and programs it oversees, hearing not just from the executives but those affected by the programs and policies administered. Legislators ought to get insights about what programs are working well, what need improvement and what can be eliminated. Done right, this will improve the lawmaking process immensely, and help the budgeting process.

Cloture

Traditionally, all legislators must file all their ideas for policy changes for the next two years by mid-December (cloture), just six weeks after their election and before they serve a real day in office. In theory, this is to cut down the number of bills and ensure legislative staff is not overwhelmed throughout the session. It doesn’t work. Faced with the deadline, legislators submit every idea imaginable, even those they may come to regret.

Let’s allow committee members to put in bills after they have a chance to learn about what’s working and not in state government. Perhaps one senator and two House members on a given committee ought to be allowed to generate a bill after cloture. And maybe all members ought to be given a reprieve from cloture entirely, with the danger that late filed ideas may simply run out of time for consideration.

Bill reference

The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, based on established guidelines, recommend which committee a given bill should be referred to, but the Legislature takes up valuable time formally approving these recommendations. We should simply trust these two elected officers to make the right choice. Or we can have the secretary and clerk post their intentions, and legislators can be given a couple days to object so they can fight out reference on the floor.

Scheduling floor debates

If there is one complaint heard from citizens trying to participate in lawmaking more than any other, it is not knowing when the matter that they care about is going to be taken up, either in committee work session or on the floor. People who have other things to do with their precious time than hang around the State House for days should know that, say, the last week in March is the time the House and Senate will take up workers compensation bills, or sales tax exemptions, or education funding changes. Scheduling debate will put the Legislature back in the forefront of policymaking, allow optimal public input when it matters most, focus lawmakers’ attention, and give the media the chance to report in a timely fashion about important issues.

This one does not require rule changes; the Senate President and the House Speaker can do it on their own, but it requires the will to tell their colleagues as well as powerful lobbyists that this is the way it is.

Below the State House dome, these ideas may seem outrageously bold — even heretical. But they are not radical. Indeed, some of these ideas are reflected in a 1999 memo penned by former Sen. Peter Mills, the governor’s brother.

The pandemic has forced us all to change the way we live and work. Now is a good time to innovate at the Maine Legislature too.