AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's 22-year-old term limits law came under fire Monday at the Statehouse, where a legislative policy committee is considering a bill that calls for its repeal.
Maine legislators cannot serve more than four consecutive two-year terms, and critics say the restriction is weakening the Legislature as an institution and empowering the executive branch and lobbyists. Still, lawmakers on the panel expressed reservations against overturning a law instituted through a popular citizen initiative.
The push for term limits began back in the early 90s after a scandal known as Ballot Gate. It started when an aide to then veteran Democratic House Speaker John Martin broke into a storeroom and tampered with some ballots in a legislative recount. Voters' confidence was eroded. And less than a year later, 68 percent of them approved the state's term limits law through a citizen petition.
Today, Rep. John Martin still represents Eagle Lake. He opposed term limits in 1992 and he opposes them today. He says they've resulted in a much weaker Legislature.
"When sitting on a committee I heard a member of the Legislature ask a member of the department, 'Why don't you tell us what to do.'" Martin says. "And I became literally unglued."
In addition to creating not-ready-for-prime-time lawmakers, Martin says there are other reasons he decided to sponsor a bill to repeal legislative term limits. He says the restrictions have increased the power of the governor's office and special interest lobbyists. And because the law allows a legislator from the House to run for the Senate after four terms — or vice-versa — Martin says Maine voters only created a revolving door for politicians between the two chambers.
"So in effect, you don't really have term limits," Martin says. "But what it does take away is continuity within one legislative body."
"There is a general feeling that somehow anybody can come in as a legislator and do just fine — well, some can," says Jon Lund. "But the fact is as you know now — or you may learn — legislating is a complicated process."
Lund is a former Maine attorney general who supports Martin's efforts to repeal term limits or, at the very least, send the matter back to the voters for reconsideration. Like Lund, Polly Ward of the Maine League of Women Voters agrees that changes in health care, energy regulation and other complex public-policy issues means voters deserve a more knowledgeable and seasoned Legislature.
"By disqualifying experienced and capable legislators, term limits make our government less responsive to voters, less accountable and less effective," Ward says.
But not everyone at the committee public hearing was on board with repealing Maine's term limits law.
"We should not go back to the days when overly powerful presiding officers and committee chairs in this Legislature lorded over public policymaking, creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility," says Rick Bennett, state chairman of the Maine Republican Party. He said he was speaking to members of the State and Local Government Committee as a private citizen opposed to a return of what he calls "politics as usual in Augusta."
Bennett urged the panelists to uphold the state's term limits law, which he says ensures the Legislature features people with real-world experience rather than career politicians. The committee plans to review the bill further at a later date.