As the Maine Legislature returns to Augusta under especially unusual circumstances, they will now face the challenges of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn head-on – something they’ve largely managed to avoid since adjournment. It’s clear that now, as they address the twin crises facing the state (as well as a whole host of other issues), the Legislature desperately needs to consider reforms to its own procedures and structure.

First and foremost, the procedure for the Legislature calling itself back in for a special session needs to be reconsidered. Right now, a majority of each party caucus in each chamber (the House Democrats and Republicans, as well as the Senate Democrats and Republicans) is required. This means that a simple majority of any one caucus can block the Legislature from returning. This doesn’t take into account how large a majority any party has, so a very small number of legislators could keep the Legislature out of town.

This could be changed so that some sort of supermajority in each chamber, such as two-thirds or three-quarters of all members, had to agree to return for a special session. That would prevent any one caucus, or the leadership in either chamber, from wielding too much power, and would also be more democratic than the current rule.

The current procedures for considering bills on both the floor and in committee are cumbersome as well. As it stands, nearly every bill receives at least a hearing in committee, and if anyone on the committee votes for the proposal, then it will receive a vote on the floor. Many of these committee hearings and floor votes are perfunctory, but many are not – and the time spent on legislation is not necessarily linked to its likelihood of passage. Indeed, it’s often an inverse relationship, as hours of staff and legislators’ time are wasted on bills going nowhere.

It doesn’t have to be this way: In other states, the chair of a committee can simply decline to schedule a hearing, essentially killing the bill right then and there. If Maine didn’t want to give that much power solely to the chair, they could require them to cooperate with the ranking minority member. Surely, if the chair and ranking member of a committee agree that a bill shouldn’t be considered, there’s little chance it’s going to become law. In the current partisan environment, that’s not likely to happen very often, but it might be just enough to save us from wasting time on a few silly bills each year. The Legislature could also raise the threshold for a floor vote, so one dissenting vote on the committee isn’t enough to force a debate – and that happens more often than one might imagine.

Another common issue in legislative proceedings is transparency. Increasingly, much of the legislating in Augusta occurs behind closed doors, or with little notice at odd times that makes it next to impossible for the public to offer their input. This is especially noticeable late in the session, when legislators often work long hours to finalize deals on bond packages and the biennial budget. These are the most important votes each session, and yet it’s often difficult for even legislators to keep track of what’s going on, let alone the public. Indeed, there was at least one instance in recent years when a lobbyist got the final copy of a bill before many legislators did.

This type of behavior is undemocratic and completely unacceptable. Legislators shouldn’t have budget deals tossed at them at the last minute, nor should they have to depend on their colleagues or lobbyists to know what’s in a bill. Any amendment, bill or budget that is brought before either chamber for a vote ought to be publicly posted at least 48 hours before it can be voted on. That will give at least every member of the Legislature the chance to read it, if they so desire. Sadly, there’s no way to actually make them read every bill before they vote, but we can at least take that away as an excuse.

Maine’s part-time, term-limited Legislature already faces a power imbalance with the executive branch. While that’s become blatantly obvious during the pandemic, it’s been a problem for quite some time. Many members of leadership don’t seem interested in fixing it because it might limit their own power. That’s not surprising, but it’s unfortunate, short-sighted and harmful to Maine’s democracy in the long run.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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