First rumblings of a backlash to term limits

Maine, the first state to implement limits on both houses, considers

Six years ago, paper-mill worker Robert Cameron was among the majority of Mainers who voted to limit his state legislators to four consecutive two-year terms.

Today, Mr. Cameron is a Republican state representative from the rural timber town of Rumford, and he says his vote was a mistake.

"I based my decision on emotion rather than the impact on the state," Cameron says with typical Yankee flare. "If I ran a Fortune 500 company I wouldn't fire good people just because they've worked for eight years."

As a result, Cameron has introduced a bill to annul the vote he made in 1993. If the bill passes both houses, it would make Maine - the first state to implement term limits on both houses - the first state to repeal them.

Like many lawmakers here, Cameron says term limits have created an ineffective state legislature with little historical institutional knowledge. Freshmen with little or no political experience are pouring in. Other states such as Arkansas and Idaho are revisiting the issue, and the nascent backlash may indicate the challenges that lie ahead as term limits take effect in more states nationwide.

"Evidence is now coming in [to support what] political scientists and theorists have said all along - that there are great dangers with term limits," says Eric Lane, a law professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "There is a lot of national concern with the lack of experience and the complex issues being thrown to legislators."

Maine's example

Indeed, the loss of experienced lawmakers in states with term limits has coincided with a rise of complicated issues - such as welfare reform - passed off by the federal government. And politicians and pundits across the US will be watching to see how Maine handles this problem.

"It will be very important nationally if Maine does repeal their term limits, since Maine has a reputation for a strong forward process," Mr. Lane says.

Sources in the legislature say that Cameron's bill is likely to pass if he adds an amendment allowing for a referendum. Cameron has indicated that he is open to the idea, even though public opinion here remains firmly against the bill.

In support of his legislation, Cameron notes that an unprecedented 3,000 new bills were submitted last year. Many of these had made it to the floor before, evidence that first-term politicians are ignorant of the legislature's history, he says.

"Many of us have other jobs, and very few have legal backgrounds," says Cameron, who's just begun his fourth and final term in office. He says he will not run for reelection even if his bill does pass. "There's a steep learning curve in the legislative process, and once you make all this progress they throw you out."

Yet his argument has not swayed the majority of Maine voters. Some Mainers are insulted by the fact that legislators are now questioning their 1993 decision, reached through a ballot initiative.

"It's a statement of arrogance," says John Michael, a former Maine representative from Auburn and now chairman of the statewide term-limits group "On Our Terms." "They've convinced themselves that they're so important and that no one else can do their job."

Apparently, Mr. Michael is one of many Maine residents who feel this way. A recent poll by Washington-based US Term Limits shows 61 percent of registered voters in Maine favored placing term limits on state legislators, and 58.6 percent said state legislators should not overthrow the term-limits law. Indeed, in a state that still abides by the highly democratic town-meeting system, skepticism of political power still runs deep.

"Nothing has changed in terms of the polling - 2 of 3 voters over the past five years have supported term limits," says Chris Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. "[The legislators] think they can get away with it now that the public has calmed down and isn't paying attention. They find it inconvenient with new people in - the old-boy network is gone."

Critics of term limits counter that those limits have given the reins of political power to lobbyists and bureaucrats who feed off the new lawmakers' inexperience. Mr. Potholm, however, says lobbyists are the ones becoming most frustrated. Having to reeducate new politicians about their issues has been a chore, and some of the old reliables are no longer available.

Who has the power?

Former Representative Michael agrees. During his experience in Augusta, first- and second-term legislators were always the ones least swayed by the influence of lobbyists. Describing freshmen as "having a bit of fire in their belly," Michael says the recent wave of bill submissions should be viewed as a sign of innovative thinking rather than ignorance.

Michael also notes legislators have the freedom to leave and come back to office after two years. For example, the former House Speaker - whose connection to an election-tampering scandal catalyzed the term-limit movement here - rejoined the House in November. Also, John Martin, a 20-year House veteran, is back where he began, representing his hometown.

Still, Michael says that Mainers have made their desires clear. "The public instinctually knows career politicians are bad," Michael says. "Those people in Augusta should be sharing the privilege of leadership instead of hogging it for themselves. They should be bringing the public into the process more."

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