Election officials prepare for year

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff
Posted July 12, 2009, at 6:20 p.m.

Maine election officials and political interest groups are gearing up for an unusually busy off-year election this November as voters weigh in on some of society’s hottest issues, including drugs, taxes and gay marriage.

The Secretary of State’s Office already has approved four citizen initiatives to appear on the November ballot. The initiatives seek to:

— Repeal the controversial 2007 school consolidation mandate.

— Decrease the excise tax levied on newer vehicles.

— Require voter approval for state and local tax or spending increases, also known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights II, or TABOR II.

— Expand Maine’s medical marijuana laws to encompass additional health conditions and establish nonprofit dispensaries for the drug.

Voters also will decide whether to approve a $71 million bond package for transportation projects.

Additionally, critics of the recently enacted law allowing same-sex couples to marry in Maine said last week they are well on their way to collecting enough signatures to place a “people’s veto” on the November ballot.

An effort to repeal a tax reform bill is not likely to go to voters this fall, however.

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All of the activity has presented Maine election officials with some “administrative challenges” as they strive to balance a heavy workload with state-mandated budget cuts, according to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

“People think of election season as the period from Labor Day to November, but we are at it year-round,” Dunlap said.

Municipal election officials are the first line of defense against invalid petition signatures. Staff in Dunlap’s office then go over the petitioners’ names, which are put onto a computerized spreadsheet, for a host of possible red flags, including people signing for a spouse or signing multiple petitions.

Most petition drives are run professionally, although Dunlap said there have been instances of fraud.

“If [signature gatherers] do things that are fast and loose, like writing down names out of phone books, those are criminal activities and we do prosecute them,” Dunlap said.

One lively issue appears to be off the table for this November.

Organizers of an effort to repeal a tax restructuring bill approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature this past session said they now hope to present the issue to voters next year.

“We think there are enough issues on the ballot this November so we are going to shoot for June,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

The bill, which was approved largely along a party-line vote, aims to reform Maine’s tax code by reducing the top income tax rate for those earning less than $250,000 a year from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent or lower.

The new system would offset those revenue losses by applying the sales tax to more goods and services while increasing the state’s meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent. The result, according to supporters, is that nearly 90 percent of Maine residents will pay less total taxes over the year while tourists will pay more.

By waiting until next June, the bill’s opponents will not be able to stop the new tax code from taking effect. There have also been questions raised about whether the bill’s critics could raise enough money to gather the 55,087 signatures needed for this fall’s ballot, especially after the state received praise from some conservative-leaning organizations for cutting taxes during a recession. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, hailed the tax, calling passage of the bill a “Maine miracle.”

But Webster, who disagrees with the rosy projections of the bill’s effects, said he doesn’t believe waiting will harm the repeal effort, which he said would be a “true grass-roots campaign.”

“It will give us the ability, once we have the signatures, to go out and travel around the state and tell people what it’s all about,” he said.

Opponents of Maine’s new gay marriage law say they are having no problem collecting enough signatures. A spokesman for Stand for Marriage Maine said supporters of a people’s veto had gathered more than 55,000 signatures in about four weeks. The coalition, which is organizing petition drives through local churches, is gathering additional signatures to provide the campaign a cushion before filing with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Those who fought to allow same-sex couples to legally marry in Maine are likewise preparing for a high-profile and costly battle.

“We’re not surprised,” Jesse Connolly with Maine Freedom to Marry said last week. “I think everyone fully expected them to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.”

The four citizen initiatives are headed to the ballot after lawmakers declined to approve accompanying legislation.

On the issue of school consolidation, legislators and Gov. John Baldacci approved a one-year waiver on financial penalties against the more than 100 school systems that failed to consolidate or reorganize.

Those penalties range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the size of the school district.

But the two chambers were divided on a bill to repeal the law, thereby sending it to voters.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/07/12/politics/election-officials-prepare-for-year/ printed on April 16, 2014