AUGUSTA — A bipartisan group of lawmakers called on their colleagues Monday to show solidarity with struggling Mainers by supporting cost-saving measures to reduce the size of Maine’s Legislature for the first time since the 1840s.

They said they are optimistic about prospects for reform, even though similar efforts were defeated two years ago.

“All of us know we are living in a world where we’re being asked to do more with less,” state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said at a State House news conference. “Let’s not kid ourselves; we don’t need the sixth-largest House of Representatives in the country.”

Maine’s part-time, citizen Legislature has 186 members – 151 in the House and 35 in the Senate – who are elected every two years and are in session for 10 out of 24 months. The average size of each House district is about 8,400 people; the population of each Senate district is about 38,000.

Reducing the number of seats in the House or Senate would require a change to Maine’s Constitution. The change would need to be supported by two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber and then be approved by Maine voters.

Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, is sponsoring L.D. 153, which would cut about one-third of the seats, leaving 101 in the House and 23 in the Senate as of 2015. The change would save an estimated $4.9 million in the first two years.

Hinck said Maine is 40th in the United States in population but has the 10th-largest Legislature.

“It seems to me that the decision on how large the Legislature should be, should mostly be about efficiency and cost-effectiveness,” he said Monday at a public hearing on his bill. “If we were to interfere with our democratic processes by reducing the size of the Legislature, we shouldn’t contemplate it. If we can (still) accomplish the role of the Legislature, why not save money, be more efficient and do the business with fewer bodies?”

Similar bills, L.D. 40 and L.D. 669, are sponsored by Reps. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, and Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, respectively.

Carey’s bill would make the largest cut, leaving 101 members in the House and 17 state senators. It is projected to save nearly $3.5 million in the first two years.

Harvell’s bill would reduce the Maine House from 151 members to 131. It’s similar to a proposal that won initial approval in the House two years ago before getting defeated in a subsequent vote. Many members who flipped their votes cited concerns about the impact the reduction would have in rural Maine.

Those worries were echoed by some Monday. In a smaller Legislature, lawmakers would still represent districts with equal numbers of residents, but the districts in rural areas would be geographically larger.

“When I look at the two Maines, it looks like you are going to increase it even more, so that rural Maine once again will have less of a voice just because there’s more district,” said Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, a member of the State and Local Government Committee, which took testimony on the bills Monday. She said it already takes her 2½ hours to drive from one end of her House district to the other.

Harvell said such concerns are unfounded, and it’s just a fact that Mainers are migrating to more southern and coastal regions.

“The reality is, whether you pass this legislation or not, rural Maine is going to be adversely affected in terms of geography,” he said. “But I would also make the argument that if it takes you 2½ hours to get across your district, God only knows what it would have been on horseback in 1840.”

Technology, like cellphones and email, makes it easier to stay in touch with constituents than it was in the past, he said.

Harvell’s proposal to cut 20 House members as of 2015 would save an estimated $1.5 million in the first biennium.

That’s not enough to convince Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, that it’s a good idea. Though she initially signed on in support, she said she now opposes the bill because it would hand more power to lobbyists.

“It is true that this legislation will at first glance save the state a few bucks, but in the long run I fear that the effects will undermine the true voice of the people,” she said in a news release.

Mary Adams, who has long advocated for reduced taxes in Maine, said she opposes the bills for similar reasons.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]