Maine legislators should reduce glut of bills

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Does Maine’s Legislature have a chronic glut of bills wasting time, money, and creativity, keeping elected officials from giving important issues the attention they deserve? Should Maine legislators reduce the number of bills they submit each legislative session?

Maine State Representatives Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, and Paula Sutton, R-Warren, as I write, have a lively Facebook discussion on this topic. Representatives Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, and Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, are part of the discussion. Former State Representative Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, and other informed people are weighing in on the pros and cons, too.

The discussion seems to stem from a Portland Press Herald guest column, “Maine Voices: Clogged legislative process needs reform in Maine.” (12/26/17)

I’ll bet Deale B. Salisbury is smiling.

The Hon. Deale B. Salisbury, R-Ellsworth, served in the 115th Maine Legislature (1992) House of Representatives. Deale, who died in 2007, campaigned with a promise to his constituents that, if they elected him, he would not sponsor any bills. That is, Deale might support (co-sponsor) other bills, but he would not initiate bills.

As House Republican communications staffer for the 115th Legislature, Rep. Salisbury surprised me. I was used to promoting bills sponsored by legislators I worked with. At first, I wasn’t quite sure if he was pulling my leg when Rep. Salisbury told me, “I’m not sponsoring any bills.”

He wasn’t.

Deale honestly believed there were already enough bills in each Maine Legislature — probably too many. In that way, he was in sync with, and in advance of, Representatives Stetkis, Sutton, and others.

The current “bill glut” debate focuses most on second sessions of the Maine Legislature. First, a little background. Every two years voters across the entire State of Maine elect 151 members to the Maine House of Representatives, and 35 Members to the Maine Senate. Together, senators and representatives are known as legislators.

Each two-year term of the Maine Legislature is numbered. Now we’re in the 128th Maine Legislature. The first year of each two-year term is the first session. The second year is the second session.

Maine’s Constitution (the supreme law of Maine) limits bills introduced during each Legislature’s second session. There are others, but the constitutional limitations for this topic are bills limited “to budgetary matters; [and emergency] legislation….”

The “bill glut” results from stretching the definition of “emergency” almost to the point where the word has no meaning. If a legislator can persuade a majority of the 10-member Legislative Council that his or her bill is an emergency, it is allowed for consideration in the second session.

Reps. Stetkis and Sutton’s Facebook debate, covering many good points and counterpoints, seems a bit like squeezing a balloon. Every good point is countered with an equally good point. It is obvious that what should be common sense — let’s not waste time on trivial matters — will be a tough sell among legislators.

In my experience Maine would do just fine, probably better, if our legislators had fewer opportunities for mischief. As far as I know, submitting bills is not required of any legislator. My favorite “trivial” bill remains one to inventory all Maine’s stone walls.

But, even after reading this current Facebook discussion, I don’t think tweaking legislative rules is the answer. Instead, I think the Hon. Deale Salisbury had the answer. It begins with each candidate for the Legislature deciding how they will handle new bills, then making their position public during campaign season.

Then it’s up to constituents, voters to weigh in on the “bill glut” at the voting booth. Elect enough legislators promising not to sponsor new bills — “bill glut” solved.

Happy New Year, Deale B. Salisbury, wherever you are.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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