One of the benefits in a democracy is the right of citizens to petition their government.

Most everyone has been approached to sign a petition at one time or another. Whether it is repealing laws the Legislature has passed (e.g., tax reform, taxes on beverages) or trying to pass new laws (e.g., medical marijuana, term limits, tax and spending caps), citizens are asked to get involved. Those campaigns have cost millions of dollars but don’t guarantee success.

A less expensive approach to creating or changing the law is to ask your legislator to introduce a bill for consideration by the Legislature.

There Ought to be a Law is a contest announced recently by state Rep. Melissa Innes of Yarmouth. She got the idea from a similar contest run by state legislators in California. Her stated purpose is to engage more people in her district to participate in state government. That’s a good thing.

The problem is that Maine legislators already submit about 2,000 bills, at a hard cost of about $340 per idea. That’s $680,000 just for starters if they all go forward. Some are good ideas, many are refinements and others are just plain bad policy.

Whether they’re good or bad, the Legislature’s lawyers and researchers have to write the formal language and then determine how it relates to any other part of Maine’s lengthy statutes. Department heads and their staffs have to get involved as well.

Every proposed bill also has soft costs, such as the time it takes to support or oppose a bill. When Sen. Libby Mitchell introduced L.D. 1498, “An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1,” more than 100 businesspeople went to Augusta and spent five to six hours waiting to testify in opposition to the bill.

They weren’t producing any income that day. Instead, they were there on their own nickel, playing defense because someone wanted a law that would cost Maine businesses millions of dollars and undermine their right to manage their places of work.

Untold hours of paid and unpaid lobbying were required of both the proponents and opponents. Hundreds of hours of conversations, strategy meetings and telephone calls were expended inside and outside the Capitol.

The bill never made it out of committee, but the cost could easily be measured in tens of thousands of dollars. That’s democracy, but it isn’t cheap.

While Rep. Innes is trolling for ideas for more laws, there is serious discussion about actually restraining the Legislature.

The first idea is to limit the number of bills a legislator can submit in a single session. That may force legislators and leaders to focus on the most important and urgent matters.

Another idea is to limit the number of days the Legislature is allowed to meet. Less time means more focus. It now costs about $24 million to run the Legislature.

Last year, Rep. Patrick Flood of Winthrop tried to reduce lawmakers’ time in Augusta by 15 days over the two years the Legislature is in session. He also introduced a bill to reduce the number of state representatives from 151 to 131. Despite the millions of dollars that could have been saved, both bills were defeated by the majority.

Any legislator who reaches out to constituents to identify needs is doing a service, but in these times it might be better to run a contest titled Wipe Out, in which people are asked to identify laws that get in the way of building a stronger Maine economy and help reduce people’s dependence on government programs.

For example, the owner of a convenience store chain once compared government-related startup costs between Maine and New Hampshire.

The cost to open a 3,000-square-foot convenience store and gas station in Maine was $50,000 for permits and taxes, compared with $15,000 in New Hampshire.

When it’s easier to make a living and run a business just miles from Maine, we should not be surprised when owners choose the state with fewer laws, regulations and costs.

The growth and burdens of government happen in small degrees. It reminds me of “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose” by Dr. Seuss.

This generous critter becomes so burdened with animals that have one by one populated his antlers that he’s unable to reach new grazing grounds. When threatened by hunters, he simply sheds his horns and his unreasonable burden and proceeds to greener pastures of moose moss.

As the featured mammal on our state seal, we need to do all we can to protect the herd from undue burdens.

What do you think and what are you going to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]