It’s easy to view Sen. Craig Hickman’s proposal to consider sweeping changes to the state constitution with a great deal of skepticism. For one, any time such sweeping changes are proposed to state law, it’s wise to consider them carefully – if at all.

In years past, that was the default position of the Legislature. More recently, however, there seems to be slightly increased enthusiasm for grandiose proposals to address supposed problems. While proposals like this are rarely enacted as is, many of them haven’t been given the consideration they deserve, instead being enacted without sufficient examination of their potential unintended consequences.  

We’ve seen that with citizen initiatives time and time again, but also with various ordinary bills recently passed by the Legislature, like the property-tax assistance for seniors passed last session. At the time, sponsors promised that it wouldn’t run out of money, but since then one of the problems with it is that … it’s running out of money. That’s an example of a program that, while well-intended, was not perhaps as well thought-out as it could have been, and now lawmakers are scrambling to fix it. So, it’s worth taking a moment to thoroughly review any changes to the state constitution going forward. 

Fortunately, Sen. Hickman’s proposal is structured with that in mind: It establishes a bipartisan commission to review the Maine constitution rather than rewriting it completely. There are good and bad ideas within Hickman’s proposal – it’s unclear, for instance, why we should start paying someone to be lieutenant governor – but he’s taking the right overall approach. 

One of the good ideas he has is to switch Maine from a bicameral legislature – that is, with two chambers – to a unicameral one, with a single chamber. Currently, only one state in the country, Nebraska, has a unicameral legislature, but it’s worth our consideration here as well.

Indeed, in one key way, Maine’s Legislature already functions similarly to a unicameral legislature, since it has joint committees rather than separate topical committees in each chamber. This quickens the legislative process, ensuring that bills have the same reports when they reach the floor in each chamber. It also means that members of each chamber are already familiar with each other, as they frequently work very closely together in committee. Moreover, unlike in other states or at the federal level, the two chambers function under very similar rules and are elected in the same way. They’re more alike than they are different, and having two chambers is more of an unnecessary redundancy than a virtue. 


Often, having two chambers – particularly when they’re both elected every two years – serves to obfuscate the legislative process rather than enhance it. It’s easy, for instance, for a member of the House to sponsor a proposal that they don’t expect to pass, because they can count on the Senate to vote it down. This allows legislators (and yes, it works in both directions) to make a big show of pushing for legislation that they know will go nowhere.

Though this may well earn them plaudits from a certain constituency – or, more likely, donors – it’s all more political theater than it is governing, and it wastes taxpayer time and money. Consolidating to a single chamber would strip away this charade, forcing legislators to be a bit more thoughtful in their proposals. 

Moreover, having two chambers often simply slows the legislative process unnecessarily without adding anything to the debate. Even with uncontroversial bills, the Legislature has to take the time to have legislation printed, read, placed on the calendar and voted on in each chamber. This is such a feature of legislative life that there’s a term for it in Augusta. It’s called shuffling papers.

At the end of a session, it can lead to one chamber spending hours sitting around and waiting for the other chamber to finish their work. It’s hard to imagine anything more wasteful than paying legislators to sit around in the middle of the night, but that’s what we often end up doing. 

At the federal level, the House and Senate serve a distinct function, with different elections, rules and traditions. In Maine, it’s more of a distinction without a difference, and it’s one we ought to consider eliminating. It could increase government transparency while saving taxpayer money.

It won’t be easy to figure out the details and implement the transition, but that’s why it deserves a serious look by a bipartisan commission instead of rushing into it – or rejecting it out of hand. 

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

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