Seasoned leadership often is hard to come by in the Maine Legislature. Just as an elected official attains enough information and trust to move a majority of lawmakers toward a common goal, his or her time in office ends because of term limits.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, is a good example.

Millett is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable members of the Legislature when it comes to the budget. He has demonstrated both good judgment and a spirit of compromise to help balance the state’s financial obligations. He now is the lead minority member of the Appropriations Committee.

The problem is that this is Millett’s final term in the House, though he hopes to return to the Capitol as a state senator. If he is unsuccessful in his bid for election to the Senate, the Legislature will lose the leadership, knowledge and passion he has brought to the issue of fiscal compromise.

While some may say term limits were meant to ensure regular turnover, there is a price we pay in terms of public policy.

Knowledge, trust and leadership are sent packing by term limits. Though all three qualities are important, little is accomplished without experienced leadership.

How did we get here?

In 1993, 68 percent of those who voted passed a law to limit legislators to four consecutive two-year terms in the House or Senate. A total of 16 years as a legislator is a truly remarkable contribution. That’s 20 percent or more of the average lifetime.

The term-limit initiative came in response to a record-setting 20-year rule as speaker of the House by Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake.

His downfall from the rostrum occurred when an aide to Martin was caught tampering with ballots during an election recount, an act that was just enough to push Martin’s detractors to initiate a successful term-limits initiative.

Though Martin was the intended target of term limits, it didn’t work. The voters of the St. John Valley have given John Martin an additional 12 years in the Legislature since the law was implemented. He is seeking his 23rd term in the November election and is running unopposed.

Martin took two years off in 1996, then was elected to four terms in the state Senate. In 2008, he was returned to the House. If he serves until he reaches the eight-year limit again, he will have served as a Maine legislator for 50 years.

There is much to be said for institutional memory. Given the enormous amount of time and debate that goes into crafting a bill, it is important that we have legislators who remember the reasons a bill passed or failed.

Another outcome of term limits is that the House of Representatives has had six one-term speakers since the law took effect. Among many who observe and participate in the legislative process, eight years in one chamber is too short a time to enable or encourage seasoned leadership to rise to the top.

Constant turnover does not serve the interests of leading large and complex organizations.

Imagine if a company’s chief executive officer were replaced every two years. The organization would lurch from one vision to another with little progress.

The years ahead are going to require both major political parties to put forward their very best leaders to address Maine’s most vexing problems: taxation, education, public employee retirement, health care, transportation, welfare, economic development.

Two years is not adequate for a leader to create either a simple majority or a bipartisan consensus. Nor is two years a sufficient amount of time for committee chairs to develop and refine legislation in their particular jurisdictions.

If the term-limit law were amended to allow a lifetime maximum of eight terms in any combination of House or Senate service, stronger and more experienced leaders would emerge to get Maine moving.

One thing is certain: The current term-limit law is not working when it comes to leadership.

Whether candidates for governor or the Legislature want government to expand or contract, the one goal they share is to make government work. That takes seasoned leadership, and leadership takes time.

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

Tony Payne is a lifelong resident of Maine who is active in business, civic and political affairs. He may be reached at:

[email protected]