Maine State Senator Peter Mills





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Articles by Peter Mills

Mid-Session Blues

A Grumpy Critique of Our Legislative Process
April 1999 - By Senator Peter Mills

Democracy is by nature inefficient; but we seem hard at work to make it worse than our founders designed it to be.

It is frustrating to rush down here on session days only to find that the sole order of business is the reference of bills, supplemented by the honoring of sports teams, ceremonial speeches and standing at ease while waiting for still another set of reference papers from the House. The entire morning goes to waste while the committees are screaming for more time to work bills.

We need more committee work and fewer chamber sessions, particularly for the first half of our five month schedule. By mid-session, the committees come under enormous pressure to kill bills and pump out reports without time to redraft, refine, reflect or build consensus.

We should dump most of our early chamber sessions to allow more morning time for committee work, to consolidate and group bills for hearings and work sessions, to set up public hearings around issues, rather than bills, and to do follow-up review of drafted amendments.

Here are my suggestions about how to do it.

Reference of bills.

The reference of bills is simply not important, certainly much less so than the time we devote to it. We should let the Secretary and Clerk publish proposed bill references by list and then allow a brief time for any legislator to challenge an assignment, perhaps through a special reference panel or any other less formal procedure than bringing it back to each chamber for concurrence.

Chamber attention to such issues should be rare. We should give committees the power to change references or hold joint hearings through sub-committees by mutual consent without chamber approval.

Computers and paper.

Instead of giving ourselves a pay raise, we should spend the same money to put a screen and a docked laptop on each desk to create a local area network (LAN) through which all bill, hearing and notice information is electronically circulated to each legislator. Thus, we can eliminate paper entirely from the drafting and processing of bills. Co-sponsors can be signed on by e-mail. Hearing notices can be sent out electronically. Each legislator’s personal schedule can be created and refined automatically each day.

The system should be flexible enough to operate in either “push” or “pull” mode. In other words, during session, pending calendar items should pop up and be presented to each legislator’s desk screen. But the legislator should also be able to search for and view any other item in the system, including other bills, roll calls, or even the rough text of debate from the other chamber. There is no reason why debate cannot be transcribed directly into the data base as it occurs.

We need 17" or 19" screens in order to have room to bring up bills and their amendments side by side. We should also give each member a pager or cell phone to relieve committee clerks from having to chase us down from room to room.

Ceremony and trivia.

Ceremonial distractions and institutionalized business lobbying (e.g., The Maine Development Foundation) are getting out of hand. Legislators, old and new alike, need to spend less time being bused around the state like little archdukes and more time being brought up to speed on the ABC’s of state government, e.g., the revenue system, GPA, transportation, insurance regulation, utilities, pensions, unemployment comp, etc.

Most of us have temporarily given up valued careers to come down here. We have teaching jobs, small businesses, children and other work or retirement activities to go home to. We didn’t come to Augusta to collect a meal allowance and shake hands with the doctor-of-the-day. We came to learn how the system works, get something done and go home. Honoring sports teams and fiftieth wedding anniversaries have become overbearing distractions to managing the public’s multi-billion dollar business.

Because so many legislators are never taught how anything works, they content themselves with minor bills that tinker around the fringes of policy. Many simply give up and occupy their time mailing out congratulatory letters to high school seniors or consoling constituents in disputes with the DHS. On the floor, we debate endlessly over surficial issues like seat belts and restaurant smoking without ever considering, for example, how GPA, revenue sharing and property tax exemptions impact our service center communities. Such structural concerns are addressed piecemeal in different committees or are not dealt with at all.

Most legislators are intelligent people. They can grapple with difficult issues if they are encouraged to focus on them. Who would be upset to abolish completely all sentiments, resolutions and reference issues and thus shorten our daily calendar to a page or two? We have better uses for the time. We need, for example, more joint caucuses to share information on important issues.

Committees and money.

We need fewer committees, perhaps no more than 10; and we should give each policy committee the responsibility to manage money. Right now, Appropriations has it all; but they can’t do it effectively because they are so swamped with trivia.

The Appropriations Committee should have more general power and less specific responsibility. They should create general budget allocations to be approved by the Legislature and delegated out to the policy committees in mid-session before committee work is concluded. With the budget outline set, the policy committees should take it from there and complete the process.

For example, we should appropriate a fixed sum for human services; then let that committee decide how to break it up among competing programs. If the committee wants to add $8 million to “Start Me Right,” then so be it; but let them fund the program by taking money from something else out of their budget allocation.

All the money for education should be allocated to the Education Committee. Let them decide how to allocate the money between the University and GPA. It is hard to craft a school funding formula without knowing how much will go into the formula to start with. Right now the committee operates in a vacuum, producing one spread sheet after another based on wild guesses about how much money Appropriations may let them have in June.

Money for tax relief or requirements for added revenue should be delegated to Taxation. If that committee wants to cut $60 million out of the income tax for retirees, then let them do it. But if instead the sales tax should go down, or the gas tax should go up, then let the committee weigh in with authority on how revenue should be generated or cut in order to achieve the targeted result.

We should have fewer committees but invest them with real power. They should be chaired by select legislators who are given the luxury to become authorities in the fields for which they are responsible.

Committees should freely create ad hoc sub-committees to focus on specific issues and groups of related bills. Sub-committees should have authority to hold their own public hearings--even in the off season between sessions if they see fit.

Bill drafting.

Give the Revisor the authority to provide only a concept draft if a legislator cannot produce his own smooth bill on a complex or goofy issue that isn’t likely to achieve passage. By joint rule, the relevant committee chair should have authority to intervene whenever any legislator is making unreasonable demands on technical staff.

Committees should force special interests to do more of the technical work. If highly paid lobbyists can’t take the time to draft a bill properly, then dump the bill and tell them to bring it back in proper form two years from now.

We should more freely make use of time during breaks between sessions to focus hard on difficult or long term issues that require careful drafting and decision making.

Floor debate.

Either by chamber rule or by informal procedure, we should announce a day in advance when important tabled issues will be set for debate. It is unfair both to the public and to our members to pull important issues off the table at arbitrary times with little notice or forewarning. The Naturopaths, the “Start Me Rights” and the referendum control advocates had to hang around day after day with no idea when their issues would come up.

Conclusion.

Our present inefficiency is not anyone’s fault. Much of it is just the way we have always done things. We have carried over many practices and traditions from an earlier time. Some of these are important to preserve. The Constitution gives us an astonishing degree of arbitrary power over each other and over the lives of our fellow citizens by simple majority vote. Custom, courtesy and tradition are important to keep such power in check.

But on the other hand, we have a public duty to question aggressively those practices that are no longer functional or that stand in the way of getting important work done.

I would not vote to give ourselves a pay raise for the ineffective way we are now doing the public’s work. I would sooner put the money into computers and other system reforms. We can do better work in less time if we restructure how we set about it.

Suggested Committee Consolidation

Appropriations
Agriculture, Natural Resources and Forestry
Banking, Insurance and Business
Judiciary and Corrections
Education and Cultural Affairs

Health and Human Services
Fisheries, Wildlife and Maritime Resources
Labor, Legal and Veterans Affairs
Taxation and State and Local Government
Transportation and Utilities