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Petition bill gets initial OK in Senate

Posted March 22, 2010, at 10:55 p.m.
Members of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools collected about 400 signatures on petitions Saturday at the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth in an effort to repeal the state's school consolidation law. The group needs to collect nearly 55,000 signatures in order to send the question to legislators or to a referendum vote. (Bangor Daily News/Rich Hewitt)
Members of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools collected about 400 signatures on petitions Saturday at the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth in an effort to repeal the state's school consolidation law. The group needs to collect nearly 55,000 signatures in order to send the question to legislators or to a referendum vote. (Bangor Daily News/Rich Hewitt)
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)
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)

AUGUSTA, Maine — Tensions over the campaign to repeal a controversial tax-restructuring bill continue to smolder in the Legislature as evidenced by a party-line vote Monday in the Senate on a bill that seeks to change the signature-gathering process for ballot measures.

The Senate voted 20-14 to give initial approval to a bill that Democrats claim will increase transparency and prevent fraud in the citizen’s initiative and people’s veto processes.

The bill, LD 1730, would force firms that are paid to collect petition signatures to register with state officials and require petition circulators to initial and number each petition. The measure also directs town clerks to photocopy each sheet.

But Republicans predicted the bill would do little to strengthen existing anti-fraud policies while burdening clerks with more paperwork.

“This bill is not about fraud. This bill is about feeling good,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden.

GOP opponents also predicted the bill could make it more difficult for Maine voters to have their voices heard through the ballot initiative process.

The unanimous Republican opposition to the bill also underscored the political tensions over the June 8 referendum on the tax reform bill passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Both sides are still smarting from events that transpired last year while opponents of the tax restructuring bill — led by Republican lawmakers — worked to gather the 55,000-plus signatures needed to trigger a statewide vote on the issue.

Democrats claim the tax restructuring bill will lower the tax burden for roughly 90 percent of Mainers by reducing the top income tax rate for residents earning less than $250,000. But critics contend the Democrats’ plan to apply the sales tax to more goods and services while increasing the meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent would harm many Mainers while stifling the economy.

Republicans have accused members of the Democratic leadership — including House Majority Leader John Piotti and House Majority Whip Seth Berry — of coordinating a campaign of harassment and intimidation of signature gatherers and potential signers.

Democrats have disputed those accusations, insisting they were merely observing the petition drive and trying to counter the blatant misinformation petition circulators were using to collect signatures.

In the first legislative skirmish, Democrats on the Legal and Veterans’ Affairs Committee ceded to Republican pressure and voted last month to kill a bill by Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

Some aspects of Berry’s bill, titled “An Act to Prevent Predatory Signature Gathering,” were incorporated into the watered-down version of LD 1730 eventually endorsed by the committee.

But committee co-chairman Sen. Nancy Sullivan said Republican leaders made clear to her that their opposition centered largely on the bill’s Democratic sponsors not on its content. Republicans urged her instead to create a committee-sponsored bill, she said.

“That is not good government,” Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said Monday.

Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican who helped lead the petition drive, acknowledged that he was among the GOP lawmakers pushing the committee to wipe the political slate clean by starting a new bill.

But Trahan said that while the committee removed “some of the worst things” from LD 1730, the bill is still too problematic to gain his vote.

“I do feel the bill could have been improved significantly,” Trahan said.

In an interview, Berry said he was disappointed by the tone of the Senate debate but was confident about the bill’s fate in the House.

“It’s very unfortunate that personalities became a sideshow today,” Berry said. “We should be discussing policy here. … We should be discussing transparency and fraud and how to combat it.”

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