The structure of the Maine Legislature, including how its two sessions are conducted, is pretty straightforward in theory: During the first session, in odd-numbered years, any legislator can introduce any number of bills on any topic. This includes totally ridiculous legislation, completely symbolic and meaningless legislation, as well as legislation that is considered and rejected so often it’s almost as much of a ritual as hanging stockings at Christmas.

The second, shorter session, in even-numbered years, is supposed to be focused on emergency legislation and the biennial budget. In theory, this schedule makes sense: legislators have more time to debate and discuss legislation – to actually govern, that is – when they’re not focused on running for re-election. Moreover, debating the state budget takes a lot of time, and by limiting legislation in the second session, lawmakers can focus more on the most important bills.

Increasingly, this supposedly sensible structure is running into the reality of modern-day partisanship and the permanent campaign that has trickled down to even local office, never mind the state Legislature. While the second session is supposed to be limited to “emergencies,” in practice the majority party decides what that word means every election year. That means that they can simply let in any legislation they want from their party and disallow any and all legislation from the minority party, no matter how important. They can even take legislation away from the minority party – if both parties put in similar bills, they can allow their party’s version to move forward. This is the consequence of using a vague term like “emergency” and allowing the Legislative Council, on which the majority party has the controlling vote, to decide what that word means every other year.

The good news is, a couple of pretty easy ways exist to fix this. The bad news is, they’re almost certainly never going to be implemented.

One would be to simply allow every legislator a certain number of bills in the second session, rather than letting the majority decide what the word “emergency” means. That would be a more practical and neutral way to limit legislative debate, one that doesn’t depend on the majority in the Legislature making political decisions about every single bill submitted that session.

Sadly, the idea of the second session being devoted to emergency legislation is not only a legislative rule but also is embedded in the state constitution, so changing it is quite complicated. First, a brave legislator out there would have to propose a constitutional amendment; then it would have to pass both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority; then it has to be approved by the people at the ballot box. This cumbersome process is part of the reason term limits were enacted as a statute, rather than a constitutional amendment:Two-thirds of the Legislature would never have approved kicking themselves out of office.

Another option is simply to change the legislative calendar. The second legislative session ought to adjourn at the end of April, while the first session is supposed to adjourn in early June. Now, the Legislature can choose to give itself additional time to finish its work, and they’ve done so increasingly frequently in recent years, but it at least requires a two-thirds vote – meaning that usually both parties have to support it.

A practical way to limit the second session even more would be to just shorten it; this can be accomplished pretty easily through a change in statute. Alternatively, if a majority of the Legislature won’t shorten the session, a determined minority can end it by simply refusing to extend it. We’ve seen showdowns over adjournments in recent years, but the minority party could make it much more of a clear line in the sand at the very beginning of session if they wished.

We could simply have a responsible majority of the Legislative Council put politics aside and actually limit legislation in the second session to real emergencies. While both parties promise this when they’re in the minority, neither party ever holds themselves to it in the majority.

The problem with this approach is that, just like most of the other approaches, it requires a majority of the Legislature to go along with it. That means that the majority party has to be willing to limit its own power for the greater good, something that we rarely see anyone do in politics these days.

That’s why reform of the legislative process is almost certainly doomed in Maine, no matter who’s in charge.

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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