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Time the avenger

Guess we showed them.

By "we," I actually mean "you." Because I didnít vote for the term-limits referendum back in 1993. And by "showed them," I mean "didnít do diddly." Because the term-limits law for state legislators hasnít accomplished what proponents promised.

I base that assessment on a well researched and reasonably readable new book by three political scientists associated with the University of Maine. In Changing Members: The Maine Legislature In The Era of Term Limits, Matthew Moen (now at the University of South Dakota), Kenneth Palmer, and Richard Powell distill the results of their poll of more than 100 legislators, and interviews with dozens of political players, to determine what effect the decade-old law, which limits state senators and representatives to four consecutive terms in office, has had on the Legislature.

Before we get to the bookís findings, letís recall the original 1993 claims of term-limits supporters. Their campaign brochure said the measure would "open up state government to new people and fresh ideas." While there has been increased turnover in the Legislature in the last decade, the referendum didnít eliminate term-limitsí poster boy, namely then-House Speaker John Martin, whoís now a powerful state senator and came close to being elected Senate president this year. Other Ď93 legislators who survived the purge: John Baldacci (now governor), Steve Rowe (now attorney general), Dale McCormick (departing state treasurer and soon-to-be head of the state housing authority), Dan Gwadosky (departing secretary of state and soon-to-be head of state liquor and lottery operations) and Mike Michaud (now a US representative).

As for "fresh ideas," does Baldacciís tax-reform plan count?

Other promises: Supporters said term limits would make state government "more responsive" (TV ad), "reduce the influence of powerful special interests and well entrenched bureaucrats" (campaign brochure) and "set the stage for major reforms" (campaign press release).

As if.

According to the book, term limits weakened legislative leaders (who canít serve long enough to build bases of support) and legislative committees (which lack experience and expertise). That doesnít mean rank-and-file members have more authority. Instead, they tend to follow the advice of the aforementioned "well entrenched bureaucrats." The authors found legislative staff have become "the repository of institutional memory in the Maine Legislature," because few legislators know whatís in current law or whatís been tried before. One political operative is quoted as saying the Legislature "is increasingly unable to deal effectively with complex policy issues."

That clears the way for the governor to exert unprecedented authority. An executive branch official told the authors the chief executive "is now able to dominate policy debates routinely, with legislators reacting to the governorís agenda, rather than developing one of their own."

Even more powerful than the governor are policy experts in the executive department. Due to term limits, "long-time civil servants are matched against mostly inexperienced legislators in the give-and-take of policy formulation and implementation." Executive branch officials are often treated as "celebrities" and "experts whose knowledge is beyond question," said one legislator.

Under term limits, power has shifted from elected officials to unelected bureaucrats, contradicting not only democratic principles, but also claims by the lawís supporters that the average voter would gain stature. "Citizens were the one group expected to benefit from term limits the most," wrote the authors, "but our research suggests citizens have probably benefited the least."

Term-limits opponents also got it wrong. They argued the law would shift power to lobbyists. Increased turnover at the State House has made it more difficult for lobbyists to develop relationships, and loss of authority by leadership has made it tougher for hired guns to sway lots of votes by convincing a few key players. Because lobbyists are now more knowledgeable about issues and procedures than many legislators, they hold some advantages, but overall, the law has been a wash for them.

Thereís no doubt term limits fulfilled its goal of clearing out entrenched incumbents. But did that make for a better Legislature?

"[C]ontrary to the stated expectations of term-limits proponents," write the authors, "the senior members were replaced with a cadre of new members much like them. The faces changed, but the new legislators . . . harbored analogous political ambitions, and usually had the same political party affiliation as their predecessors. Term limits unquestionably swept away years of political experience; whether they simultaneously swept into office a very different or better cadre of political players is less certain."

As a quick fix, term limits ainít.

Guess we showed ourselves.

Donít limit your response. Just email me at ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: December 31, 2004 - January 6, 2005
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