Time to modify term limits

By Jon Lund and George Smith

The late Elizabeth Noyes did some wonderful things for the people of Maine during her lifetime and through her estate. She also did some other things. She supported the initiative that established term limits for members of the Legislature.

At that time, a number of other states also enacted term limits. Also at the time, we had some abuses by legislative leadership that caused broad public concern.

A term limits law then might have averted the problem.

But her term limits reform was not limited to leadership. It applied to rank and file legislators, as well. A senator or representative to the Legislature can now serve no more than four consecutive terms, eight years in all.

The end result has been to deprive the Maine Senate and House of the opportunity to develop experienced and skillful leadership and a cadre of experienced rank and file legislators.

Despite the common misperception that legislative skills are easy to learn, and anybody can do it, that is not the case.

In practice, in order to gain credibility with their peers, in their first term senators and representatives need to learn about the legislative process, say very little and select carefully the areas in which to develop expertise. An expert-on-everything wastes precious legislative time and loses credibility. Legislators who are blowhards soon burn out.

In their second term, skilled legislators may be selected to serve as House or Senate chair of a committee. Maine has joint committees, made up of both senators and representatives, a practice not followed in all states. The chair aims to conduct hearings evenhandedly and, later on, leads discussions that precede the vote of the committee, “Ought to pass or ought not to pass.”

In their third term, legislators who demonstrate leadership skills may be selected to head the more important committees, or to assist in leadership duties.

Many legislative leaders don’t hit their stride before their third or fourth terms. Just when they develop their skills and the confidence of their peers, including the confidence of members of the opposite party, a legislative leader is termed out. Some may have the chance to run for office in the other branch, but often potential leaders find their legislative careers to be at an end, and the legislators who gained confidence in the judgment of that person have lost a valued connection.

It is equally important to have legislators who have institutional memory, to understand the history of issues (very few issues are brand new), learn which executive department administrators are candid in their testimony regarding pending bills and which legislators’ views they have confidence in. Over the years, legislators become friends, and that is important in getting them to work together.

Term limits has robbed the Legislature of the opportunity to develop and nurture skilled and experienced leaders. In my opinion, term limits has altered the constitutional balance between the legislative and executive branches. Our Supreme Judicial Court didn’t see it that way, but I believe they got it wrong.

I served three terms in the House and one term in the Senate. During that time we had senior members of each party whose words of wisdom carried bipartisan clout — for example, Louis Jalbert of Lewiston, a Democrat, and Rodney Ross, of Bath, a Republican, were long-term legislators.

Periodically, one of our seasoned legislators would stand up and point out that the measure being debated had been offered many times in previous sessions and gained no support, “So let’s not waste a lot of time on this one.”

Equally important, Maine used to have a cadre of skilled and experienced administrators in whom seasoned legislative leaders developed confidence.

I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1965. That was the year Democrats gained majorities in both House and Senate, and Republicans were in the minority, the first time that had happened in a long time. I had just finished seven years as assistant county attorney and as county attorney for Kennebec County, and sponsored several bills that improved the flexibility of the sentencing process. I spoke to a young Democrat who was on a committee considering one of my bills.

He replied that mine was a good bill, “But we couldn’t let it come out of committee with a Republican legislator’s name as sponsor, so it will come out as a committee redraft.” I did my best to hide my anger, but I was pleased that my idea would become law.

Republicans had been in the majority for many, many years, and often had not dealt kindly with the Democrats, “who could caucus in a phone booth.” The Democrats couldn’t be blamed for a bit of partisanship.

However, leadership cooperated to get the job done. The House speaker consulted the minority leader with respect to committee assignments. Leadership agreed that there would be no co-sponsorship of bills, which wasted a lot of time and sometimes presented a false veneer of bipartisanship on a bill.

Although Republican John Reed was governor, I don’t recall a lot of vetoes. Maine got rid of the Governor’s Council, a relic of colonial days, and established an income tax, a needed source of state revenue.

In short, despite the shift in majority party in both the House and Senate we did not experience the paralyzing partisanship that appears to mark the State House today. I attribute the difference, in part, to the presence of a larger proportion of experienced members in the Legislature in the good old days.

I believe we should repeal term limits for legislators, but leave it in place for legislative leadership.


George Smith:

Boy, did Jon get this right. Term limits have been a disaster, from the lack of historical knowledge to inexperienced committee chairs to the inability to become friends with other legislators. All of this takes time and several sessions.

The inexperience is a huge problem. With no historical knowledge of the issues, everything takes much longer to resolve, and mistakes are often repeated.

I’ve been hanging out at the Legislature for more than 40 years, and it used to be a fun place. The Senate would adjourn and we’d go into the Senate president’s office, where he had a bar. We’d enjoy a drink and then go out to dinner together. The sessions were shorter, most legislators stayed in Augusta, and they became friends. That doesn’t mean they always agreed on issues, but when you are friends, you can work things out. They banned alcohol from the Capitol about 10 years ago, and I think they need to bring it back!

But what we really need to bring back are experienced legislators who can and will work together. I’ve used my friend Matt Dunlap as an example. In just his second term, Matt was named House chairman of the Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, where I spent most of my time as a lobbyist. One bill came out of committee with all committee members opposed, except for Matt.

And he fought his committee for several hours in a House debate, angering many of them. A reporter from Governing magazine happened to be there that day, doing a story on term limits, and in my interview, I used Matt’s inexperience as an example of the failure of term limits. That became a key part of the story in the magazine, and Matt was so aggravated he didn’t speak to me for six months.

In his third term, Matt did a much better job of chairing the IFW Committee, and we became friends again. And in his fourth term, Matt was a superb chairman of the committee and an exceptional legislator. And then he was gone, termed out. So again I used him in article about the problems with term limits, noting that when he became a truly great legislator, we fired him.

Can you think of any other job or service where you would prefer to hire an inexperienced person? Of course not! And each legislator must win our support every two years in order to return to Augusta. Yes, we already had term limits. It’s called an election!


Reprinted with permission from the Portland Press-Herald

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