Politics & Other Mistakes: Light that failed

6 mins read

How has Maine’s term-limit law, restricting legislators to eight consecutive years in office, been working since it was approved by voters in 1993?

About as well as the state Department of Health and Human Services’ computer, which recently sent notices to some food stamp applicants saying they’d been turned down because they’re “fleeing felons.”

Good to know our tax dollars aren’t subsidizing bank robbers on the lam. Unless they work for AIG.

But back to a less expensive scandal: term limits.

Al Diamon

In 1994, the last election before the limits law took effect, Republican Peter Mills of Cornville won a state Senate seat.

In 2009, Mills is still sitting in it.

The ’94 balloting also returned Democrat Herb Adams of Portland to Augusta for his fourth term in the state House.

In 2009, Adams is serving his eighth term.

Fifteen years ago, Republican Walter Gooley of Farmington was a House freshman. Today, he’s a Senate veteran. When GOP state Rep. Henry Joy of Crystal completes his current term in 2010, he’ll have logged 16 years under the Dome. But Joy is a novice compared to Democratic state Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake. Martin is spending his 19th term in the House, not to mention four in the Senate.

Other leftovers: Democratic Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell of Vassalboro was first elected to the Legislature in 1984. Republican state Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden became a state representative in 1992. GOP state Sen. Richard Nass of Acton won a House seat in 1994. Democratic state Rep. John Tuttle of Sanford is in his 10th House term, with a couple of breaks to serve in the Senate.

In all, 20 current senators, a sizable majority of that 35-member body, have more than four legislative terms on their resumes.

In 1992 – before term limits – just 14 senators could claim in excess of eight years experience.

The limits law hasn’t done much to increase turnover. But that wasn’t the only reason its supporters claimed it was a good idea.

As the campaign to pass term limits geared up in the early ‘90s, organizer Rick Barton told the Portland Press Herald the measure would force legislators to “focus on the truly important.”

As the term-limits law celebrates seven election cycles in Maine, here are a few of the “truly important” items its spawn have been focusing on: banning road rage, outlawing foie gras, restricting teens using tanning booths, increasing the penalty for punching out sports referees, eliminating the penalty for punching out mixed martial arts participants and requiring disposable toilet-seat covers in public restrooms.

In 1992, term limits leader Ted O’Meara told the Press Herald, “We want to guarantee that the [legislative] process remains dynamic. It’s increasingly become stagnant.”

This year, the Legislature is dealing with a bill to allow a casino in Oxford County, a proposal that was defeated at the polls just this past November. A bill to allow municipalities to impose a local-option sales tax has failed over half-a-dozen times, but it’s back again. And a measure mandating that anyone circulating a referendum petition be a registered Maine voter turned out to be unnecessary. The state Constitution already requires that.

In their ‘92 campaign handouts, the pro-limits crowd claimed that, “Here in Maine, over 90% of incumbents seeking reelection win, demonstrating that our election system is not truly competitive.”

In the 2008 election, over 90 percent of incumbents were re-elected. I didn’t have the energy to check every biennial ballot result since the law took effect, but I’ll bet you a six pack of your favorite malt beverage that there wasn’t a single one in which anything close to 10 percent of incumbents seeking another term didn’t get their wish. 

Term limits, according to a 1992 press release from supporters, will “give the people of Maine renewed confidence in their ability to set the state on a better course.”

Nice job of course setting, people of Maine.

I’m not alone in holding a less-than-positive opinion of term limits. Eric Prier and Kevin Wagner, two college professors from Florida universities, have just published “Running Unopposed: Assessing the Impact of Term Limits on Competition in Florida and Maine.”

According to an abstract from the book’s publisher, term limits have failed to produce much in the way of competition.

“In fact,” the abstract says, “it has generally declined, and often sharply. The findings suggest that potential candidates, while influenced by local or national trends, wait for guaranteed open seats rather than challenge incumbents.”

In addition, the authors say, termed-out pols don’t tend to fade into civilian anonymity. Instead, they employ their enhanced name recognition to run for higher office – in 1994, Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree were both state senators; today, they’re U.S. representatives – thereby making it even harder for newcomers to find an opening.

How about a limit on term limits.

Gain unlimited access to me by e-mailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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