June 23, 2018
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Too Many Referendums

When voters head to the polls Tuesday, five of the seven questions they will consider on the state ballot are the result of citizen petitions. It is doubtful that this is what Maine lawmakers had in mind a century ago when they approved the citizen initiative process.

The Nov. 3 ballot is clear evidence that higher standards are needed.

When lawmakers and voters approved a citizen petition and people’s veto process in 1908, they no doubt envisioned first that the process would be used rarely and, second, that it would be used for issues that citizens strongly felt that the government had mishandled.

Today, most campaigns pay professional signature gatherers, often with money collected from out-of-state interests. A simple way to address this is to raise the bar for such initiatives. Currently, signatures representing 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election must be collected — and certified as valid — for a question to appear on the ballot, about 55,000. Several recent campaigns have collected more than 100,000 signatures, so doubling the number of required signatures should not be onerous.

Legislation has been introduced to ban paid signature gatherers and to require that signatures come from each of the state’s 16 counties. Such changes have been rejected by lawmakers.

Ballot questions now hang over legislative sessions preventing lawmakers from introducing needed legislation that could be considered competing measures, which also would have to appear on the ballot.

Meetings to discuss ballot measures must be carefully timed and planned so they can’t be considered campaign-related.

A larger problem, pointed out by former Rep. Jeremy Fischer in a recent edition of the Maine Law Review, is that initiative questions don’t have to clear the same financial hurdles as legislative proposals. Every bill considered in Augusta includes a fiscal note, an analysis by the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which tells lawmakers how much the legislation is expected to cost. If funds are not available, a bill will not be enacted even if lawmakers supported it, because the state is required to balance the budget.

Initiative questions have no such requirement. As a result, voters in 2003 approved a measure put on the ballot by the Maine Municipal Association that required the state to fund 55 percent of local education. The state had to come up with an additional $500 million to fulfill this requirement.

“Through the initiative process, voters are presented with seductive ideas in a vacuum,” Mr. Fischer writes. “Voters are asked ‘Do you favor more spending on schools?’ or ‘Do you favor lower taxes?’ but they are not presented with full and honest choices.

“More spending on schools means less spending on other programs or a tax increase. Less taxes means less spending — possibly on schools. Yet, Maine voters are not presented with such choices,” he concludes.

Some states, like Arizona, Mississippi and Missouri, require that initiatives include a means to pay for themselves. The MMA question, under such requirements, could have read: “Do you support the state increasing its share of local school funding to 55 percent by raising taxes by X percent?”

This more honest approach should be adopted in Maine.

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