Question 7 seeks more time to certify petitions

CONSOLIDATION PETITION   Kenneth Swasey of Damariscotta signs his name Saturday to a petition to repeal the school consolidation law. Members of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools gathered signatures at the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth and gathered about 400 toward their goal of 55,000 in order to send the question to the Legislature or to a referendum vote. They plan to be back at the mall next Saturday to continue the effort. (Bangor Daily News/Rich Hewitt)
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CONSOLIDATION PETITION Kenneth Swasey of Damariscotta signs his name Saturday to a petition to repeal the school consolidation law. Members of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools gathered signatures at the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth and gathered about 400 toward their goal of 55,000 in order to send the question to the Legislature or to a referendum vote. They plan to be back at the mall next Saturday to continue the effort. (Bangor Daily News/Rich Hewitt)
Posted Oct. 22, 2009, at 8:23 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Little opposition, if any, exists to a proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot that would give town and city clerks in Maine more time to process petitions by residents inserting themselves into the legislative process.

Question 7 would essentially shift the deadlines in concurrence, accomplishing the task of giving municipal clerks more time without cutting into the time allotted to signature gatherers.

The run-up to this November’s ballot is a prime example of the need for this change, according to Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who oversees elections.

In late 2008, five petition drives were nearing completion, including those that led to Questions 2, 3, 4 and 5 on next month’s ballot. Each of them needed 55,087 verified signatures, which represents 10 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.

“When you have more than one at a time, and in this case five, that’s a lot,” said Flynn during a recent interview. “At times it has been a problem.”

Question 7, which asks voters to amend the Maine Constitution, originated through the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association after a suggestion by Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen.

“It was crazy,” said Cohen, who said her employees worked overtime last year to meet the deadline. “I don’t know why, but the petitioners will often wait until the last minute to drop them off.”

For a citizen’s initiative — which is when a group outside government proposes a law by submitting signatures, such as the TABOR II legislation on the Nov. 3 ballot — the change would increase the time for clerks to verify signatures from five to 10 days. It also would extend the deadline for proposing citizen’s initiatives by 10 days to the 60th day in the first year of a legislative session and the 35th day in the second year.

In the case of a people’s veto — when a group tries to overturn a law enacted by the Legislature — the deadline for petitioners would be moved two days earlier to give clerks five days instead of three. Petitions for people’s vetoes, such as Question 1, which would repeal the same-sex marriage law, are due in the secretary of state’s office 90 days after the law’s enactment.

The proposal to amend the Constitution breezed through the Maine House and Senate unanimously, with neither body holding a roll-call vote.

“Most of our communities can handle the petitions,” said South Portland Clerk Susan Mooney, who is also president of the clerks’ association. “It’s a very different situation for a city the size of Portland, Lewiston or Bangor. Anything that alleviates a little bit of stress, we’re all for.”

Rep. Stephen Beaudette, D-Biddeford, who co-sponsored the bill, said there was no resistance.

“That particular issue was fairly straightforward,” he said. “There was no significant resistance that I can recall.”

There have been hundreds of constitutional amendments proposed in the history of the Legislature, but only a fraction of them have been enacted, according to information provided by the Maine Legislative Law Library. In 2009 alone, there were 17 constitutional amendments proposed ranging from a reduction in the size of the Legislature to making the secretary of state an elected position. Question 7 was the only one that made it through.

The most recent constitutional amendment, which allowed for the citizen’s initiative and people’s veto processes, was approved by voters on Nov. 7, 2006.

Maine Leads, a conservative advocacy organization founded in 2007, was a driving force behind the petitions that led to Questions 2 and 4, plus a third unsuccessful petition for a health care initiative. Dan Billings, an attorney and spokesman for the organization, said Question 7 is a “good, common-sense solution” to the problem.

“The beauty of this question is that it addressees the issue for town clerks but also extends the deadline for petitions,” he said. “It doesn’t harm the petitioning process at all.”

The only worry Billings has is that because Question 7 has been so overshadowed by the other items on the Nov. 3 ballot that voters won’t know what it’s about.

The Rev. Bob Emrich of Stand for Marriage Maine, which led the petition drive to put Question 1 on next month’s ballot, said he also supports the change.

“Town clerks in Maine, from my experience, do a phenomenal job,” said Emrich. “If we can make their job a little easier, I don’t have a problem with that.”

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