May 23, 2018
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People’s veto process a powerful tool

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — For the third consecutive year, Maine voters used the people’s veto process Tuesday to overturn a law that had been pushed by Democratic-controlled Legislatures. The trend is either empowering or an obstacle to effective government, depending on whom you ask.

More than 60 percent of voters favored Question 1, which overturned LD 1495, a tax reform law that would have lowered income taxes while expanding certain sales taxes and increasing the meals and lodging tax.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he was pleased with Tuesday’s results of Question 1, which he attributed to tremendous grass-roots support.

“It’s a very significant repudiation of the entrenched interests in Augusta,” he said.

Raye said he was especially surprised to see the yes vote prevail in Bangor, where Sen. Joe Perry had championed tax reform, and Waldo County, where LD 1495’s chief architect, John Piotti, is a state senator.

Political experts said the tax reform defeat could have been inevitable given an angry, disenfranchised electorate, particularly among Republicans, who overwhelmingly supported Tea Party favorite Paul LePage, the GOP nominee for governor.

L. Sandy Maisel, government professor at Colby College in Waterville, said he’s concerned that voters had the final say on such a complicated issue.

“I have a Ph.D., and I had to spend an hour deciding how to vote on Question 1,” he said. “Personally, I’m against the people’s veto because you can’t do complex policy that way.”

Still, the people’s veto has been a powerful tool in recent years. In 2008, voters rejected a law that would have levied new taxes on beer, wine and soda to help fund the state-subsidized Dirigo Health insurance program. Last year, voters overturned a law that would have allowed same-sex couples the right to get married.

Some legislators have tried recently to tighten the people’s veto signature-gathering process, which some claim is fraught with fraud and allows a side to pay signature gatherers. During the last session, lawmakers passed a bill that placed more accountability on petition circulators and empowered people who signed a petition to later remove their names if they choose.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said he’s come to recognize that the people’s veto is just another tool Mainers have a right to employ.

“I don’t think the process is too easy,” Dunlap said. “The people’s veto process is meant to give a voice to a grass-roots group of people, but in the last few instances, these issues have gotten support from the state Republican Party. That’s not exactly grass roots, but if you leave it as grass roots, it would be harder for an issue to move forward.”

The people’s veto process goes like this, Dunlap said:

A legislator comes up with a bill to make purple the official state color. The Legislature passes it, and the governor signs it into law. If that’s done in emergency session, the law goes into effect immediately, and there is no people’s veto process. If the law is passed in regular session, opponents have 90 days after the Legislature adjourns to request an application for a people’s veto.

Then they have to gather signatures, and the number of signatures needs to exceed 10 percent of total turnout from the most recent gubernatorial election.

In recent years, that number has been 55,087, based on the 2006 turnout. The signatures then need to be verified by specific towns and then by the Secretary of State’s Office. Once they are verified, a people’s veto question would appear on the next ballot, either a June primary or a general election in November.

Speaking about Tuesday’s repeal of the tax reform law, Dunlap said, to him, the results showed the strength of the Tea Party movement in Maine.

“These are not all stupid, uninformed people,” Dunlap said. “They are motivated, energized, and they know what they believe in.”

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono, said he was surprised to see the tax reform repeal pass by such a large margin and yet all four bond measures passed.

“You wouldn’t think those results would go together,” he said.

Raye said he wasn’t as surprised about the success of the bonds.

“If you look at margins on the bonds, people looked at them individually. They saw opportunities there,” he said. “I think Maine voters understand the difference between good debt and bad debt. The bond that made the least compelling case, in my opinion, Question 4, was also the closest.”

Asked what was the next step on tax reform, Raye said he envisions what he called a pay-as-you-go approach to drawing down the state’s income tax rate. He referenced a bill submitted last fall by Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, that would have used state revenue growth over time to reduce the income tax burden.

“It’s not that people don’t want tax reform,” Raye said. “They just don’t want some sleight-of-hand measure. I’m hopeful we’ll have a Republican governor and possibly a Republican majority in the Legislature in November to take a more rational look at this.”

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