AUGUSTA – Maine’s 7-year-old law that sets term limits for lawmakers has come under fire from critics who say it is weakening the legislative branch of government.
But because of widespread reluctance to tamper with a statute that was created by voters in a referendum, even those who oppose the law say it is unlikely that the Legislature would repeal or amend it.
Critics claim that by restricting service in the House or Senate to four consecutive terms, the law replaces competent veterans with inexperienced newcomers.
Some say that makes for weaker leadership and enhances the power of the governor, the bureaucracy and lobbyists.
This year, more than 10 percent of the incumbents in the House and 20 percent of those in the Senate were prohibited from seeking re-election because they had served for eight years.
The “termed-out” veterans usually include legislative leaders, and this year is no exception. Of the 10 ranking lawmakers who ran the House and Senate last time around, five were forced out by term limits.
That means legislators are rising through the ranks more quickly, as the top jobs open up more frequently than in the past. In the incoming Legislature, eight of the 10 legislative leaders are new to leadership.
Supporters of term limits say that is good because new blood at the top prevents the Legislature from growing stale and keeps it close to the people.
“Legislative leadership positions should be turned over on a regular basis, and term limits force that,” said Sen. Richard Bennett of Norway, the new Republican leader in the Senate. Term limits “force the power away from the rostrum and into the membership, and that’s good,” Bennett said.
Opponents counter that legislative experience is a valued commodity and should be regarded as such. If term limits get rid of the deadwood, “they get rid of the live wood too,” said Sen. Beverly Daggett of Augusta, the new Democratic floor leader in the Senate. “When you go anywhere else – to the heart surgeon or the mechanic – you don’t ask for the person who was just hired today” because competence grows out of experience.
In the last six years alone, for example, the House has gone through three speakers, thanks to term limits. Incoming Speaker Michael Saxl, D-Portland, is now starting his fourth term in the House, so he too will be forced out two years from now. But at least Saxl has six years under his belt. Some of the Legislature’s new leaders are taking charge after only two years on the job.