March 15 is the deadline for signing up to run for the legislature next November, and the candidate list is growing by leaps and bounds. There are old faces and new faces, and there are the really, really old faces of those who are skating around Maine’s term limits by shifting from House to Senate, or vice versa.
Four consecutive terms in the same chamber are what is allowed. Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake is the master at avoiding the hook. He has served 24 terms in the legislature, sitting it out only twice since 1965. In fact, the enactment of term limits in a citizens’ initiative in 1993 is generally ascribed to his length of service.
Republican Sen. Paul Davis served four terms in the Senate, then three in the House, and is now back in the Senate and running this year for another term there. Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo served four terms in the Senate, then shifted to the House where she will be term-limited this year after another four terms.
Both of these legislators clearly have the support of their districts. Both are living proof that term limits are no obstacle to lengthy service. The biggest challenge for these popular legislators is the occupant of the seat to which they must move once they have completed their four allotted terms in one chamber.
After four terms in the House, Rotundo would have to seek the seat occupied by Democratic colleague Nate Libby in the Senate. Sen. Libby served just one term in the House, and is now concluding his first term in the Senate. It is rare that a term-limited legislator would attempt to rip a member of his or her own party from a seat for which that legislator is still eligible.
Rotundo is far too courteous to try it. Acknowledging that she would love to continue to serve, she nevertheless offered her full support to Libby, calling him a “wonderful senator” and saying she would “very happily support him.”
Does Rotundo’s departure represent the success of Maine’s term limits law? Look at what we are losing. She has served on or chaired the Appropriations Committee from both chambers. She is calm, dignified, diligent and unfailingly courteous. Grandstanding? Never. By now she knows the budget process as few people ever do.
Poles apart politically, Davis, a conservative senator, also has developed an expertise in the legislative areas on which he has focused. Running for a ninth term, he is low key and affable, though the former state trooper has something in his gaze that suggests that, were he to pull you over on the highway, arguing with him would not be advisable.
Though prepared to venture more to the brass knuckles side when necessary (he took down a Republican colleague in a Senate primary), he has won the respect of his district, and the seat is likely his for the foreseeable future.
In a final variation on the length-of-service theme, we can look to Sen. Anne Haskell, who has served six terms in the House and two in the Senate, as a legislator who voluntarily is calling it quits. Competent, cordial, hard-working and highly respected by her constituents, Haskell has simply had enough. Her voluntary exit is the exception rather than the rule.
So what has been the benefit of term limits? Legislative terms are short, just two years, and a legislator gets only four of them before needing to find a new way to continue on. Legislators with leadership aspirations must rush up the ladder, giving short shrift to committee work (the heart of the legislative process) in favor of moving up through the caucus ranks en route to the coveted position of presiding officer.
We end up with legislative leaders who have not had to wrestle with bipartisan committees, who have not had to examine bills word by word, and who have not had to discover that their party opposites are human and have legitimate policy positions of their own.
Their focus has been party oriented, not policy driven. Their work is about advancing the goals of the party rather than understanding the issues Maine faces as a whole and developing a realistic sense of the do-ability of legislative proposals. The other disadvantage of term limits is how repetitive legislative cycles have become. Bills that go down in flames are introduced over and over again by legislators who think they have hit upon a novel idea.
One Maine leader is convinced that we should take term limits and “throw ‘em out the window.” That would be Governor Paul LePage. Speaking two years ago, his opinion was that term limits make the legislature more agenda-driven. He even waxed nostalgic over the momentarily absent John Martin. “He was experience. He had knowledge. He knew what worked and what didn’t work,” said the governor.
Efforts have been made to lengthen term limits to six terms or to increase the length of a term to four years, particularly in the Senate. Nothing has come close to approval. The end-around of moving from one chamber to the other means we can have our term limits and avoid them, too.