Editorial: A smaller Legislature

Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: A smaller Legislature

AUGUSTA -- A perennial cry has arisen this week, as it always does when money is short and citizens get annoyed at the Statehouse.

"Trim the size of the Legislature!"

And indeed, Maine's Legislature is one of the largest for the number of people we have living in the state. For every 8,600 people in Maine, we have one House member; for every 37,000 Mainers, we have one senator. The average number of House members to constituents, nationally, is 1 to 25,000, so we definitely have room to shrink.

To put that in perspective, we have one senator for a population about the size of the towns of Brunswick, Harpswell and Bath, combined, and a representative for a population of a town the size of Orono. On its face, this seems like a lot of bodies in Augusta, but Maine is a very diverse state with a lot of space between the bodies not in Augusta.

This week, the Legislature itself, in a bipartisan fashion, held public hearings on three different proposals to reduce the size of the House of Representatives and Senate. LD 40, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, would shrink the House from 151 to 131 members. LD 153, sponsored by Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, would reduce the House to 101 members and the Senate from its current 35 to 23 members. LD 669, sponsored by Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, would reduce the House to 101 members and the Senate to 17. Another bill to reduce the Senate failed, as did an effort to establish a single chamber for the Maine Legislature. Any change would require amending the state constitution, as well as a public vote, so any change is a long way off.

The amount of money we would save by cutting the Legislature isn't much. A fiscal note attached to Rep. Hinck’s bill -- a bill that trims a relatively large number of Augusta bodies -- estimates General Fund savings at $4.9 million for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, plus an additional $1 million in savings due to lower demand for public campaign financing through the Clean Elections Act.

Many people believe that having fewer people would make the Legislature more efficient. But Maine, unlike other states with higher ratios of constituents to legislators, has this funny attachment to local control.

Mainers are used to seeing their legislators where they work, where they eat out, where they shop. They pop over to their houses while they're walking the dog in the evening.  They call them on the phone. Legislators, in turn, go door to door and meet constituents, know many of them on a first-name basis, call local reporters when a story is breaking, and basically, are better at staying in touch than legislators in other parts of the country where they represent larger populations. Constituents here know how their representative voted, and they keep track of the record. It's as close to direct democracy as it gets in America today.

Will a change make the Legislature more efficient, or will it keep legislators from being able to be personally responsive ... and accountable ... to the needs and concerns of their constituents?

It's hard to tell at this point. But since legislators themselves seem to perceive a problem, perhaps they could explain ... you know, when we see them, in person, at the deli counter at Shaw's or at the corner drug store ... what changing the size of Maine's House and Senate will do to enact legislation faster, and how they'll remain responsive to the people who elected them.

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