Referendum Overload

Posted Jan. 21, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

A couple months after Maine voters rejected three of four citizen initiative questions on the November ballot, lawmakers have the opportunity to make common sense changes to the state’s referendum process.

The Nov. 3 election is clear evidence that higher standards are needed to get measures on the state ballot. LD 1345 is a first step in doing this.

As written, by Rep. James Campbell, I-Newfield, the bill would have doubled the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot from 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election to 20 percent. A portion of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which considered the bill last week, amended the bill to up the signature requirement for citizen initiatives, questions like those that sought to halve the automobile excise tax and cap government spending, which were soundly rejected by voters in November, or to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, which was approved. The amended bill would not increase the signature requirement for a people’s veto, such as Question 1 on the November ballot, which sought, successfully, to repeal the law allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Although the majority of the committee voted to reject the concept outright, five — including the committee’s chairmen — supported a higher signature requirement — 15 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election — for initiative questions.

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

Today, most campaigns pay professional signature gatherers, often with money collected from out-of-state interests, which is why Rep. Campbell, who was a Republican until a few weeks ago, sponsored LD 1345. The proliferation of referendum questions also shows that the process is not reserved only for critical issues or times of government malfeasance.

In the first 80 years that citizen initiatives were allowed on the ballot, there were 25 such questions. In the last decade there have been 38.

As problematic as the growth of initiatives is the simplistic view they present of complex problems. Voters in 2003, for example, approved a measure put on the ballot by the Maine Municipal Association requiring the state to fund 55 percent of local education. The state had to come up with an additional $500 million to fulfill this requirement. The ballot question had no language about where this money should come from, a problem that continues to plague the state today as it struggles to cut spending due to a reduction in revenue caused by the on-going recession.

A more honest approach would be to ask if people would support a tax increase or specific cuts in government services to increase school funding. Other states have such requirements.

Raising the standards for getting a question on the ballot is not undemocratic, it is a logical reaction to the flood of referendums that face voters every Election Day.

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