Little things

On shrinking legislatures
By AL DIAMON  |  January 12, 2011

In the midst of the new Republican majority's mania to reduce the size and cost of state government, I offer some advice and a warning.

The advice: Nobody with the job title "communications director" is doing anything meaningful. The duties of these well-paid public employees consist primarily of shielding inarticulate bureaucrats from the news media's impertinent questions. Caller ID accomplishes the same thing at a fraction of the cost. When in public, the governor can avoid reporters by wearing a paper bag over his head. Or by punching them.

The warning: Contrary to popular opinion, there are a few people on the state payroll who are essential, not only to the continued operation of whatever government is left after the GOP gets done slashing and burning, but, more importantly, to the Republicans' prospects of remaining in power after the next election. These valuable employees carry the titles of "state representative" and "state senator."

No, really.

A weird coalition of conservatives, frustrated liberals, and good-government types has long advocated a reduction in the size of the Maine Legislature. They argue that for a state of 1.3 million people to foot the bill for 151 House members and 35 senators amounts to a luxury we can't afford, an extravagance we don't need, and a taxpayer-funded subsidy to an unlicensed day care center for adult incompetents that unfairly competes with private businesses that could keep these people locked up and medicated at a fraction of the cost.

All true.

What's also true is that a smaller Legislature would almost certainly be controlled by Democrats.

Enlarging legislative districts would place a sizable urban center in a majority of them. Most of these municipalities — Portland, South Portland, Biddeford, Bangor, Lewiston, Waterville — skew blue. Even though the cities and larger towns would have fewer seats in a smaller Legislature, they'd control a greater percentage of those seats, because they'd dominate districts that include their sparsely populated rural neighbors. Solons from tiny places like, well, Solon would either cease to exist or fade into irrelevancy.

North of Bangor, there'd be so few legislators, they'd qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

There's another reason the GOP should oppose legislative shrinkage: efficiency. Proponents of the idea argue that with fewer representatives and senators to gum up the works, the lawmaking process would run more smoothly.

They're correct. They're also ignorant twits.

The wise crafters of our federal and state constitutions deliberately created large legislative bodies and hobbled them with arcane rules for one simple reason: They wanted to make it difficult to approve statutes that infringed on citizens' freedoms. They feared even democratically elected officials would eventually come to enjoy passing laws so much that they'd vote "yea" on almost anything, just for the pleasure of watching the public desperately try to comply.

Decades later, this system still works better than you might suppose, even while you're being fondled by airport security or finding it impossible to legally dispose of a nearly empty can of paint. For every intrusive piece of legislation that's signed into law, a dozen more bog down in the morass of committee work sessions, motions to indefinitely postpone, and non-concurrence between chambers, after which they sink to the bottom of the legislative hopper where they rot away, eventually producing the fossil fuel our great grandchildren will need because we never developed a sensible energy policy.

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