(Editor’s note: It’s been 25 years since Maine voters passed a law that limited legislators to four consecutive two-year terms in a seat in the state House or Senate. We’ve been through 10 election cycles since the law went into effect, giving Mainers a good idea of how this idea works in practice.)

Jon Lund

The late Elizabeth Noyes did some wonderful things for the people of Maine during her lifetime and through her estate. But she also supported the initiative that established term limits for members of the Legislature. At the time, we had some abuses by legislative leadership that caused broad public concern. A term limits law applied to legislative leaders then might have fixed the problem.

But Noyes’ term limits reform was not limited to leadership — it applied to rank-and-file legislators, as well. A legislator can now serve no more than four consecutive terms in one body, eight years in all. The unfortunate result has been to deprive the Maine Senate and House of the opportunity to develop and retain experienced and skillful leadership and a cadre of experienced legislators.

Despite the common misperception that legislative skills are easy to learn and anybody can do it, that is not the case. In practice, in order to gain credibility with their peers, a first-term legislator needs to say very little and carefully develop expertise. An expert-on-everything wastes precious legislative time and loses credibility. Legislators who are blowhards soon burn out.

It takes time to learn the legislative process, develop leadership skills, and gain the confidence of fellow legislators. Most legislative leaders don’t hit their stride before their third or fourth term. And just when they develop their skills and the confidence of their peers, including members of the opposite party, a legislative leader is termed out.

It is equally important to have legislators who have institutional memory so that they can understand the history of issues (very few issues are brand new), and learn which executive department administrators are candid in their testimony regarding pending bills, and which legislators they can trust. Over the years, legislators become friends, and that is important in getting them to work together.

I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1965. That year, Democrats gained majorities in both House and Senate, Republicans had been in the majority for many, many years, and often had not dealt kindly with the Democrats, “who could caucus in a phone booth,” it was said.

Despite the possibility of partisan wrangling, leadership cooperated to get the job done. The House speaker consulted the minority leader with respect to committee assignments. Leadership agreed that there would be no co-sponsorship of bills, which wasted a lot of time and sometimes presented a false veneer of bipartisanship on a particular bill.

Although the governor — John Reed — was a Republican, I don’t recall a lot of vetoes. Maine got rid of the Governor’s Council, a relic of colonial days, and established an income tax, a needed source of state revenue.

In short, despite the shift in majority party in both the House and Senate, we did not experience the paralyzing partisanship that appears to mark the State House today. I attribute the difference, in part, to the presence of a larger proportion of experienced members in the Legislature.

I believe we should repeal term limits for legislators but leave it in place for legislative leadership.

George Smith

I agree. Term limits have been a disaster, from the lack of historical knowledge to inexperienced committee chairs to the inability to become friends with other legislators. All of this takes time and several sessions.

The inexperience is a huge problem. With no historical knowledge of the issues, everything takes much longer to resolve, and mistakes are often repeated.

I’ve been hanging out at the State House for more than 40 years, and it used to be a fun place. We’d socialize and go out to dinner together. The sessions were shorter, most legislators stayed in Augusta, and they became friends. That doesn’t mean they always agreed on issues, but when you are friends, you can work things out.

But what we really need to do is bring back experienced legislators who can and will work together.

I’ve used my friend Matt Dunlap as an example. In just his second term, Matt, now the secretary of state, was named House chairman of the Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, where I spent most of my time as a lobbyist. One bill came out of committee with all committee members opposed except for Matt.

And he fought his committee for several hours in a House debate, angering many of them. A reporter from Governing magazine happened to be there that day, doing a story on term limits, and in my interview, I used Matt’s inexperience as an example of the failure of term limits. That became a key part of the story in the magazine, and Matt was so aggravated he didn’t speak to me for six months.

In his third term, Matt did a much better job of chairing the committee, and we became friends again. And in his fourth term, Matt was a superb chairman of the committee and an exceptional legislator. And then he was gone, termed out. So again I used him in article about the problems with term limits, noting that when he became a truly great legislator, we fired him.

Can you think of any other job or service where you would prefer to hire an inexperienced person? Of course not. And each legislator must win our support every two years in order to return to Augusta.

Yes, we already had term limits. It’s called an election.

Jon Lund, a former Maine attorney general, served in the House and Senate in the years before term limits. George Smith is a longtime sportsmen’s advocate, lobbyist and a columnist for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

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