It's time to term out term limits

13

If you still support term limits on Maine legislators, it could be because you think such restrictions are something that can re-engage voters. You might believe that because Rick Barton told you so.

“Term limits are something that can re-engage voters,” Barton, co-director of the term-limits referendum campaign, told the Portland Press Herald back in 1992. “New candidates bring in new voters so the process is churning at every level.”

That churning prediction was accurate. The re-engagement not so much.

Supporters told you term limits would make elected officials focus on priorities.

“Term limits are needed … to make elected officials focus on priorities,” proclaimed a ’92 campaign brochure from the Committee for Government Reform.

After a quarter century of term limits, the Legislature recently adjourned in chaos, leaving most of the major issues before it unresolved.

The pro-limits committee also put out a press release promising that term limits would reduce the influence of powerful special interests and well-entrenched bureaucrats.

Term limits, their release  said, will “(r)educe the influence of powerful special interests and well-entrenched bureaucrats.”

Several studies have shown that since term limits became law, lobbyists and state officials, with their extensive knowledge of issues, have become far more influential than inexperienced legislators in swaying the course of lawmaking. And it’s worth noting that both Barton and campaign co-director Ted O’Meara made their livings as political consultants advising exactly the sorts of special interests they were supposedly intent on thwarting.

There was one other promise the term limits crowd made repeatedly, although they were never courageous enough to do so publicly. Term limits, they whispered, are the only way we’ll ever get rid of John Martin.

Martin, a Democratic state representative from Eagle Lake, was elected speaker of the House of Representatives shortly after Columbus arrived in the New World and held that job until a 1992 ballot-tampering scandal involving one of his aides forced him from the post. With only the slightest of interruptions, he’s continued to serve in the Legislature ever since, always in key positions.

In spite of this inelegant record of abject failure, there have been surprisingly few attempts to overturn the 1993 referendum that imposed term limits. Martin engineered an unsuccessful 2007 referendum that would have increased the time legislators could serve from four two-year terms to six. In 2015, Martin introduced a bill to simply repeal the law. It went nowhere. Appearing before a Bangor Daily News reporter in a cloud of sulfur and brimstone, the ageless incarnation of political endurance explained his reasoning:

“Anybody who knows anything about the legislative process knows that it’s not working. As more and more time goes by, you have less and less experienced legislators with no history of what’s going on. The history comes from the executive branch departments or the lobbyists.”

Give the devil his due. Martin makes a good point, even if it is with the business end of a red-hot trident.

We’ve tried term limits through a dozen election cycles, and we have nothing positive to show for it. As with many feel-good ideas — public financing of campaigns, ranked-choice voting, putting a runner on second base in extra-innings baseball games — it may give us the warm fuzzies, but those little boogers are mostly clogging up the sections of our brains that are supposed to think logically.

Term limits are justified only in cases where there’s a danger an individual might accumulate too much power if allowed to stay in office indefinitely. That’s why they make sense for the executive branch, where there’s always a Putin-like threat of autocratic overreach. In the legislative branch, Maine limits leadership posts such as Senate president and speaker of the House to two two-year terms for the same reason. One John Martin is plenty.

But all freshman legislators are ineffectual boobs, who require extensive exposure to the governing process before they can locate the restrooms and learn not to co-sponsor anything backed by racist weirdos like Larry Lockman. By the time they’re sufficiently educated to accomplish anything, they’re often on the verge of being involuntarily ejected from office, depriving their constituents of the value of that hard-earned experience.

If you’re still not convinced term limits have to go, ask yourself this question: Does the State House run better today than it did 25 years ago? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

Time to do some un-limiting.

Talk back to Al Diamon at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

SHARE