Committee pans reducting Legislature - Backer Ruhlin touts streamlining

Bangor Daily News (ME) - Thursday, March 16, 1995
Author: A. Jay Higgins Of the NEWS Staff: BANGOR DAILY NEWS (BANGOR, MAINE

Only two of the nine legislators present during the State and Local Government Committee hearing supported a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Ruhlin, D-Brewer, who wanted to trim the House of Representatives from the present 151 to 99 members. 

Under the plan, the Senate would have 33 or 35 seats, depending on redistricting that would be undertaken in 2003. The reduction actually would take place in 2005. 

Ruhlin has maintained that proper redistricting would result in streamlining the legislative process at the committee level, and that could conveniently be achieved after the 2000 national census. 

Legislative committees now are composed of 13 members who are frequently busy presenting bills before other committees, which creates multiple absences during work sessions. Ruhlin said it is sometimes difficult to get a quorum to open a meeting. 

During Wednesday's meeting of the State and Local Government committee, Ruhlin attempted to deflect questions concerning decreased representation by saying the "one man, one vote" principle would remain unchanged by a reduction in House members. Ruhlin said House districts would expand from about 8,500 voters to 11,000. 

Advances in technology, he said, have rendered Maine's current system of legislative representation antiquated. 

"We can communicate with our constituents a lot faster than we could 10 or 20 years ago," he said. "I think that ability has improved enough to have a trade-off in terms of smaller legislative districts." 

Two members of the Aroostook County delegation were the most outspoken critics of Ruhlin's bill, and both argued that their constituents definitely would experience a loss of representation by a reduction. 

"Maine is still a rural state that has yet to see the information highway arrive," said Rep. Doug Ahearne, D-Madawaska. "Many areas are still trying to catch up with the rest of the country and may not for a few more years." 

"Technology is great," said Rep. Julie Robichaud, R-Caribou. "But you can never replace the face-to-face experience that our constituents value greatly." 

Rep. Pat Lane, R-Enfield, also expressed concerns that small towns would be adversely affected by shrinking the House, while her fellow committee member Rep. William Lemke dismissed the concept as amounting to nothing more than "moving the furniture around." 

Maine's fifth-place ranking among the states in terms of the size of its Legislature was troublesome to Sen. Jane Amero, R-Cape Elizabeth, who agreed with Ruhlin that times had changed since the state was admitted to the union 175 years ago. 

Rep. Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta, who is co-chairman of the committee with Amero, was perplexed by Ruhlin's contention that the Legislature would somehow be a more efficient place if it were smaller. 

Daggett agreed with others who questioned whether the quality of the representation would decline along with quantity when legislators were forced to balance the concerns of an increased number of constituents. 

"I don't have a clue how this bill makes the Legislature more responsive to the people," she said. 

Ruhlin, looking down at his desk for a moment, considered the question and then offered a cogent reponse. 

"The quality of representation depends on the voters," Ruhlin said. "If we elect 99 deadheads, we'll have a deadhead Legislature. If we elect 151 deadheads, we'll still have a deadhead Legislature."