Maine Panel To Consider Legislative Reform

 

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Here's a conundrum for leaders of state legislatures nationwide: How do you ensure that those in the governing bodies are representative of all the people? It's an especially difficult dilemma in a state such as Maine.

"Our Legislature was built around an agrarian style of economy," says Maine Senate President Mark Lawrence, a Democrat from Kittery.

"People served in the Legislature for a certain period of months, then went back and worked in other types of jobs... It was meant for people who held several jobs, part of their income came from being in the legislature, part of it came from working in the woods or part of it came from agriculture or lobstering or something like that," he says.

Now, however, there are very few farmers left, there are very few natural resource-based people in the legislature, says Lawrence, an attorney.

So Maine's Legislative Council, a 10-member management body chaired by Lawrence, meets later this month (July 14) to decide whether, for the first time in a quarter-century, there should be sweeping changes in the way the legislature does business. The idea for the meeting came from State Senator Richard A. Bennett, the assistant minority leader.

"I don't enter this with any sense of what the solution is,"says Bennett, a Republican from the town of Norway. "The Council, as managers of the Legislature, really ought to give this some thought and look at it holistically... One consideration is, can we open up the process to make it easier for people to serve?"

Maine's first legislature convened May 31, 1820, and adjourned four weeks later. For the first 60 years, legislators served annual terms.

The state Constitution was changed in 1881 to provide for a biennial legislature, and until the 1970s there usually was only one regular, three-month-long session.

In 1975, another constitutional change created two regular sessions, six-months-long the first year of the term, three months the second. Legislators currently are paid $18,000 for the two years, plus per diem expenses.

Maine House Speaker G. Steven Rowe, a Democrat from Portland, says he supports any changes that would help the legislature "look more like Maine," especially if they result in a larger number of women serving in the House. The current legislature has almost a third fewer women than a decade ago.

However, Rowe believes the Legislative Council needs to limit any inquiry into change, something that could put him at loggerheads with Lawrence, who believes a wide-open examination is needed.

According to Lawrence, the most immediate problem facing Maine's Legislature is the recruitment of candidates.

For example, the Senate leader says, during a recent speech to a group of business leaders, "I explained how the Legislature was structured and what the compensation was, and I asked them how many could serve, and not one person raised their hand.

"This was a roomful of about 200 people who you would normally go to find your candidates. That's very concerning to me," Lawrence says.

Maine always has taken pride in its so-called citizen's legislature, where laws theoretically are made by the people, not the politicians.

"I think we can still be a citizen's legislature," says Lawrence, adding, "We've got to make a Legislature that's structured so citizens can serve in it."

Bennett agrees. "I definitely oppose a full-time, professional legislature, he says. "I think we need to do better with the time we have before we even consider that step. I think the frustrating thing for many of us who serve is the amount of time the legislature requires, a lot of down time that's wasted while we're waiting for paper to move back and forth and for procedural stuff of our own creation to occur."

One way Lawrence believes the Legislature could change is if it met one or two days a week for 40 weeks of the year rather than the current three-to-five days a week for six months. He says that that schedule might be more attractive to a person who works the traditional 9-to-5 type job, as well as that person's employer.

Bennett isn't sure about that.

"Some people think we need less time there, some people think we need more time there," he says. "Some people think the time we spend is fine but we ought to adjust it.

"What I want to see is, how can we make the Legislature more transparent and more susceptible to public involvement of all people," he says.

Deliberations about the possible restructuring of the Maine legislature are expected to continue for a year to 18 months.

"What we're talking about is changing the Constitution, changing the entire process of the legislature. This is not something that's done in one meeting," Lawrence says.

 
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