Less of you

Reform is a bad idea
By AL DIAMON  |  August 18, 2010

I'm against reform.

I'm not against it because state government doesn't need reform. Obviously, it does, as anybody who's noticed the morass at the bloated Maine Department of Health and Human Services can attest. Then, there's the bureaucratic nightmare that's the state Department of Education. And the failed Dirigo Health program. The ineffective Department of Economic and Community Development. The redundancies at the departments of Marine Resources, Conservation, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The heavily politicized Public Utilities Commission. The namby-pamby Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

And the Legislature.

It's that last one that convinced me reform is a bad idea.

While all those other agencies have been reconfigured, redefined, and reformed many times over the past half-century, none of them improved. They stayed about the same: unresponsive, uncooperative, inefficient.

At least, there was no harm done.

But when the Legislature gets reformed, things get worse.

First, it was term limits, which cleaned out all the legislators who knew what they were doing (except former House Speaker John Martin of Eagle Lake), leaving control of the state House and Senate in the hands of the incompetent, unintelligible, and insane (also John Martin). Then, voters approved the Clean Election Act, funneling millions of taxpayers' dollars to finance the campaigns of dorks who were even less adept at governing than the "dirty" pols they replaced (it also paid for John Martin's many re-elections).

Now, the latest reformist fad is to reduce the size of the Legislature.

"The cost savings are not dramatic, but the potential for changing the legislative culture is great," the Bangor Daily News editorialized in May. "The quality of candidates seeking legislative office might rise with the stature of both the House and Senate posts increasing. Committee sizes would shrink, allowing members to better focus."

Wait. What?

By most estimates, eliminating a third of the Legislature would save a million bucks or so, chump change in a budget with a billion-dollar shortfall. In return, we'd get legislators with enhanced "stature." Like who? Presidential envoy George Mitchell? I think he's busy in the Middle East. Failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Les Otten? There's a guy who knows how to spend money effectively. State Representative For Life John Martin? As if his "stature" needs enhancing.

A smaller Legislature doesn't make its members more focused. It makes them more powerful. That'll change the legislative culture, all right. It'll change it to make legislators less responsive to individual constituents, particularly constituents from rural parts of the state. That's because in a smaller Legislature, nearly all the members would come from the state's largest cities and towns (except John Martin).

If you think Portland is the perfect model for how the rest of Maine should be run (let's raise taxes, ban chain stores and restaurants, and let non-citizens vote), you'll love a smaller Legislature.

There's another problem with this type of reform. The fewer elected officials there are in Augusta, the more leeway unelected bureaucrats will have to set policy. That power shift is already under way, thanks to term limits, which gives long-serving appointees and their underlings a serious advantage over legislators who haven't been around long enough to know where the restrooms are.

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