Twenty-five years after Maine voters overwhelming supported term limits, some of the lawmakers serving back then — including the very target of the law — remain in the Legislature.
In 1993, a time of dissatisfaction with government, two-thirds of Maine voters favored term limits for state legislators. Then-House Speaker John Martin, whose office was involved in a ballot-tampering scandal, was a source of ire for many Mainers.
A quarter of a century later, Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, still serves in the Legislature. Since term limits were put in place in 1996, he has served in either the Maine House or Senate for all but four years and holds the record as Maine’s longest-serving lawmaker. Martin is eligible for two more terms in his current House seat and intends to seek re-election this fall.
Clearly, term limits don’t work to stop so-called career politicians. But don’t expect lawmakers to repeal or change them — because they don’t want to face the wrath of the voters.
State-level term limits became popular in the 1990s. California, Colorado and Oklahoma enacted the first term limits for state lawmakers in 1990. Eight states followed in 1992. Maine became the 12th state to adopt term limits. Currently, 15 states have term limits. Maine is the only state in New England to restrict how long state legislators serve.
Two states, Utah and Idaho, repealed their legislative term limits after less than a decade.
Term limits are a curious thing. Voters already have the power to reject incumbents at the ballot box and vote for newcomers to state government. But they don’t.
In state legislative races, incumbents had a 90 percent or higher re-election rate in 36 states, including Maine, in 2016, according to FollowTheMoney.org. In six states — Massachusetts, Virginia, South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oregon — incumbents had a 100 percent re-election rate.
“Throw the bums out,” voter like to yell at rallies. But when they get to the voting booth, they cast another ballot in favor of their “bum.”
Term limits, it turns out, don’t necessarily change this dynamic.
While term limits have increased turnover in the Maine Legislature, there are many negative consequences. In a book published in 2005, three one-time University of Maine professors took a comprehensive look at Maine’s term limits. They found many detrimental effects, ranging from committee chairs who don’t know how to run meetings to a more than tripling of the number of bills that have only one supporting vote in committee, resulting in a floor debate and other time-consuming administrative procedures for bills that ultimately die.
Worse, lawmakers reported having to rely more on legislative staff members and lobbyists for a sense of history, Kenneth Palmer, Richard Powell and Matthew Moen wrote in their 2005 book, “Changing Members: The Maine Legislature in the Era of Term Limits.” Term limits also increased the power of the executive branch, especially as department and agency leaders could outlast, outwit and outmaneuver lawmakers.
A review by Governing magazine found that with term limits, lawmakers were more inclined to worry about short-term problems. This short-term thinking also increases partisanship because there is less interest in compromising and building bipartisan relationships, Governing wrote. New lawmakers who don’t know the ropes in the state capitol are more likely to rely on their party caucus members for guidance.
“I can’t for the life of me imagine why voters or anyone for that matter would want to get rid of people who are experienced,” University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer recently told the BDN. “If you were getting brain surgery, would you want someone with the most vast knowledge and the most experience? Of course you would.”
But don’t expect changes to term limits any time soon. Recent efforts to repeal or extend term limits have been quickly rejected by the Legislature.
This is unfortunate.
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