Capitol Notebook: Term limits: Changing the rules of the game

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John Martin is nothing if not bold.

The current state representative from Eagle Lake, whose dictatorial 20-year reign as speaker of the Maine House was ended by a 1993 referendum vote that imposed term limits, last week urged a legislative committee to throw out the law that drove him from power.

As a result of that referendum, legislators have since 1996 been limited to four consecutive two-year terms, or eight years in office, a system that many feel has limited their effectiveness.

Although driven from the speaker’s rostrum, Martin has avoided term limit restrictions by alternating between the House and Senate. Maine’s term limits law, considered weak, allows this ricochet between the two legislative bodies.

A generation has grown up since term limits were first imposed, and new millennial legislators do not remember the bitter battle 22 years ago.

At that time, Martin had been speaker for almost 20 years, known as an effective benefactor for his northern Aroostook County district, and a sometimes vindictive controller of legislators in his caucus.

His days as speaker became numbered when his top aide was caught stuffing a recount ballot box, and a well-funded initiative effort brought the question of term limits to a vote.

At last week’s hearing in front of the State and Local Government Committee only two people showed up to back Martin’s bill to end term limits. Former legislator and Attorney General Jon Lund said term limits had “robbed the Legislature of the opportunity to have seasoned leadership in the Senate and the House.”

Several of the committee members felt that since the law was enacted by voters, any change should go back out to referendum. But both Lund and Polly Ward of the League of Women Voters urged ending the term limits system without putting it to another vote.

Backing the present system of term limits was Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, who although he said he was not testifying in his role as chairman, urged committee members “not to go back to the days when overly powerful presiding officers and committee chairs lorded over public policy-making, creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility.”

Ending the current restraint of term limits system could have bright prospects this year, since it is one of the few issues that Gov. Paul LePage and many Democratic legislators agree on. Martin would not predict his bill’s fate, saying he just wanted “to get the idea out there.”

But the proposal is a chance to reflect on the history of the Maine Legislature and its changing stature and effectiveness.

The number of people running for the Legislature has dwindled in the last 10 years, and serving there does not have the appeal and stature it used to. Ironically, term limits may have slowed legislative turnover, rather than increased it, as talented potential candidates often wait for an incumbent to serve out eight years instead of mounting an earlier primary challenge.

To help address this problem, Martin also advocates a pay raise for legislators and the governor.

Martin argued that many people simply can’t afford to run, skewing the potential legislative talent pool towards retirees and the wealthy.

“If we paid legislators $40,000 for a session, you’d all have an opponent,” Martin told committee members. “If we pay people $10,000, you won’t.”

Although people are fond of saying that the present system of term limits has enhanced the power of the lobbyists and the bureaucracy, it doesn’t match the power of lobbyists in the 1950s and 1960s, when they fed and cared for lawmakers in the now-demolished Augusta House, a home away from home for many legislators.

After attaining the speakership in 1974, it was Martin who removed those lobbyists from the House chamber, where they habitually had patrolled even during session. Martin also enhanced the Legislature’s staff, increasing its relative power.

If there is to be an end to term limits, the proposal should be put out to voters, although it risks a bitter debate in this age of voter alienation and acid online commentary. If a change in the system is imposed from Augusta, it will further distance voters from the political process, which many have already tuned out.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.