Seeing the sausage being made in Maine is an interesting experience. No, I am not talking about literal sausage, but the legislative process, as in the saying “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”

For me personally, the process is more interesting because of where I have lived: Illinois and Wisconsin. Comparing Illinois and Wisconsin to Maine, some would argue, is unreasonable. But I believe it is fair game because of the flaws in the legislative process in Maine that could be why so many referendums are popping up on statewide ballots – and why legislators are becoming frustrated by being confronted with them so often.

Let’s begin with Illinois. Yes, a state where four of the last seven governors have been tossed in prison for one thing or another and where there was no state budget for two years in a row. The Illinois General Assembly is a full-time, bicameral legislature with a total of 119 representatives in the House of Representatives and 59 in the Senate.

The National Conference on State Legislatures considers Illinois to be a “full-time Green Lite state.” Legislators there have paid staff members and legislative service constitutes 80 percent of a full-time job, though compared to Green states – California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania – sessions are shorter and districts are smaller.

When I served as one of the interns for Illinois’ 40th governor, Pat Quinn, after college in 2013, I saw firsthand that although a full-time legislature can be dysfunctional and fighting with a governor of the same party, when push came to shove, the General Assembly eventually showed the ability to take on tough and sometimes controversial issues without being pre-empted by a referendum from the people. In the first year of the current General Assembly, 614 bills have passed.

The Wisconsin Legislature is also a bicameral legislature, consisting of 99 members of the Assembly and 33 in the Senate, and is also considered a “full-time Green Lite state.” Here, too, I saw that the Legislature prioritized what was important and got it done. Those priorities included legislation that weakened public employee unions’ power and made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, as well as tax reform and concealed-carry bills. Lawmakers also considered allowing the University of Wisconsin System to have a significant amount of autonomy from state control in the 2015-17 state budget.

Moving forward to Maine, one of the things I’ve heard about the legislative process here is that “every bill gets a hearing.” While that sounds great in theory, it’s an overwhelming task for legislators to review and vote on so many bills – some of which should have never been given a hearing in the first place.

Consider the 127th Legislature, when, according to the Bangor Daily News, over 1,531 bills were submitted in the first session. Of these, 1,437 received votes in the House and Senate floor; 497 were enacted and presented to the governor; 147 were signed by the governor; 167 became law without the governor’s signature, and 126 became law after the governor’s veto was overridden. For the session as a whole, the passage rate was just 36 percent. Compare that to Colorado, North Dakota and Idaho, whose legislatures pass over 60 percent of the bills they introduce each session, according to the legislative tracking service FiscalNote.

It’s great that lawmakers are responding to their constituents’ concerns on issues such as hedgehog licensing, but the Legislature’s agenda is being clogged unnecessarily, and lawmakers are losing the time to deal with pressing issues at a 30,000-foot level, such as Medicaid, marijuana, elder care and education. Some of the same issues were decided on by the people via referendum in recent years. To make matters worse, the Legislature only has a small amount of time to work because it’s a part-time body.

It may be time for the Legislature to consider procedural reform – such as lifting the requirement for every bill to receive a hearing and allowing committees to kill or table bills without bringing them to the floor for a vote – and structural reform – which calls for legislative leaders on both sides to take control of the agenda for that session.

Finally, it also may be time for both legislators and their leaders to be more strategic politically about whether the legislation they’re proposing can actually pass. Submitting so many bills that have little to no chance of passage or being signed by the governor is actually doing more harm than good for all of us and wasting taxpayer dollars.

— Special to the Press Herald

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