Our Viewpoint: Maine’s term limits law has expired

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The usual atmosphere of optimism surrounds the opening of the new legislative session in Augusta. Democrats control all branches of government, and Janet Mills has returned to the Blaine House with a decisive victory. There could be no stronger mandate to enact meaningful progressive change to improve the lives of Mainers.

So we want to be hopeful that real progress could be made on the chronic and often tragic problems that bedevil this state, from the problem of housing and homelessness, to the worsening crisis of drug addiction and overdose deaths, to the tragedies of a failed system of child protection. And unlike most previous years, Maine has money to spend.

But our hopes are tempered by the usual political fissures, and by weaknesses in Maine’s state government structure that hinder progress. Due at least partly to Maine’s term limits law (which limits those elected to four consecutive two-year terms), a strikingly large number of legislators in this session are newly elected to the House and Senate, many with no previous legislative service in either branch. 

This fact makes for a steep learning curve, and gives lobbyists more power to influence and often block legislation. And while Rachel Talbot Ross has taken over as Speaker of the House with an ambitious agenda, she will have only two years to advance it. Both she and Senate President Troy Jackson are serving their last terms. In fact, term limits often affect the ability of Democratic leaders to advance an agenda, as they have held power most frequently in the last 25 years. 

The term limits law arrived in the early 1990s, financed by the wealthy Maine philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce, who supported many causes with a vast financial settlement from her divorce from Robert Noyce, the co-inventor of the computer microchip and co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel.

She backed a referendum effort for term limits, driven by the powers of long-running House Speaker John Martin, which had hardened over 19 years until finally a ballot-tampering scandal involving his top aide led to the referendum to install term limits for legislators. It was done to address a specific problem, now decades in the past. 

Changing the term limits law requires only a majority vote of the Legislature, since it is not a Constitutional change. We’d like them to take that on, and we’ll still be hoping for some real accomplishments in this Legislative session.


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