Well-funded state and national groups want to do what progressive lawmakers couldn’t over the years.
State House failures, national pressure force Maine voters to decide major policy
AUGUSTA, Maine — With a historically change-averse Maine Legislature enveloped in gridlock with Gov. Paul LePage, the only route to political transformation these days may be through the referendum process.
And five questions on 2016’s ballot are perhaps the boldest package ever proposed in Maine.
Well-funded state and national groups want to do what progressive lawmakers couldn’t over the years: Legalize marijuana, boost education funding, establish mandatory background checks on gun transfers, raise the minimum wage and change Maine’s voting system.
But these campaigns didn’t just come out of thin air: They’re rooted in past legislative failures, Maine culture and decades of the state’s richest political history.
Maine has long been a bastion of marijuana counterculture, and law has reflected that.
Marijuana has long been a fixture of rural Maine life, but since the 1970s, it has gained acceptance in the state legal system. Perhaps the most notable policy change to date came in 1976, when Maine followed Oregon and Alaska to decriminalize possession.
Reviews of that change were positive, with a state analysis in 1979 finding that less than 1 percent of adults and just over 3 percent of high schoolers reported increasing marijuana use because of the law and calling it “a model of successful government reform.”
If decriminalization wasn’t in place in 1978, the study found that Maine would have spent nearly $333,000 — or $1.2 million today — to prosecute more than 1,300 people. Now, hardly anybody is ever jailed solely on marijuana charges.
Pro-legalization advocates have had other milestones, too: Maine voters legalized medical marijuana in 1999, allowing use for certain conditions, but access wasn’t addressed until 2009, when voters approved the referendum creating the dual dispensary and caregiver systems that supply most patients.
This has given the national Marijuana Policy Project, which is running this year’s campaign, a toehold in Maine, even after the Legislature nixed three bills since 2011 that would have legalized marijuana.
Those national advocates are facing off against a coalition of addiction experts, police and other leaders. But if Maine’s culture is any indication, Question 1 should pass.
A bipartisan failure to fully fund education could lead to an overhaul of Maine tax policy.
The debate over Question 2 is rooted in a bureaucratic 1997 change in how Maine funds schools. Before then, Maine’s K-12 budget was expenditure-driven — based on the previous year’s amount of state and local education spending.
Now, Maine has the “Essential Programs and Services” system, the state’s cost-driven estimate for minimum school funding by district. In 2004, voters passed a referendum directing the state to pay for 55 percent of the EPS amount.
But since then, the state has never met it, only getting as close as nearly 54 percent. To get there, progressive groups — led by the Maine Education Association, the state’s top teachers union — have proposed a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000.
It’s anathema to LePage and conservatives, whose top goal is to reduce and eliminate Maine’s income tax. They see the school funding piece of the referendum as a Trojan horse for a tax hike. That cloaking may be a politically brilliant way to make the tax code more progressive.
Gun-friendly Maine would be a massive victory for national groups pushing expanded background checks.
Maine’s gun culture is unique, resembling midwestern or southern states more so than the rest of New England and the Northeast. The state has heavy gun ownership but low rates of gun violence.
In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimated that 41 percent of Maine adults lived in households with at least one gun. That was good for 24th in the nation, but in 2011, the University of Southern Maine found the state had the fifth-lowest rate of firearm use in crimes at 14.2 percent — or half the national average.
This is partly because of Maine’s rural nature and prominence as a hunting destination, which was quite lawless until the 1880s. But the first hunting licenses were required in 1899, and the Maine Warden Service became professionalized over the course of the 1900s.
Over the years, politicians from both major parties have been backed by the National Rifle Association, including Democratic titan Edmund Muskie, a bird hunter and trout angler depicted hooking a fish on a pin in his 1972 presidential primary run.
Now, gun rights are more politicized and identified with the Republican Party. Still, prominent Democrats — including House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan — have enjoyed the NRA’s support.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded in 2014 by former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg to counter the NRA’s influence after a host of mass shootings, is a chief funder for the Maine referendum to expand mandatory background checks to private sales and transfers.
Maine’s last minimum wage hike was seven years ago, and Republicans have stood against increases amid a national push by progressives.
Maine’s minimum wage went to its current level of $7.50 per hour in 2009, and LePage and Republicans have stood against increases over the last five years, including in 2013, when LePage vetoed an increase to $9 per hour.
He and most Republicans are opposing a Maine People’s Alliance-led proposal to raise Maine’s minimum hourly wage to $12 by 2020, alongside raising the tipped minimum $3.75 to $5 in 2017, after which it’ll rise each year until it reaches the non-tipped minimum.
But the proposal only hit the ballot after Republicans and key business groups opposed minimum wage increases floated in 2015. Once this increase got on the ballot, they pushed the Legislature to add a smaller increase as an alternative.
But it was blocked by Democrats amid a national push for wage increases. New York, California and Oregon have moved to raise them in 2016, with three other states set to vote on it with Maine later this year. If it wins here, it would be comeuppance for Republicans.
The push for ranked-choice voting is a LePage-motivated retort to an age-old embrace of plurality voting.
Question 5 would allow voters to rank candidates for governor, the Legislature and Congress in order of preference, creating an “instant runoff” if no single candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total vote and counting second- and third-place votes if necessary.
This is apparently at odds with a provision in the Maine Constitution allowing governors to be elected with a plurality — not necessarily a majority — of votes. If it passes, an amendment will likely be needed.
To understand why we have that system and why some want it gone, you need to go back 136 years to the election of 1879, when Democratic Gov. Alonzo Garcelon finished in third place, well behind Republican Daniel Davis.
But he got less than 50 percent of votes, triggering a bizarre process where the Legislature decided the next governor: The House of Representatives would whittle down the four-man field to two, then the Senate would choose between those two.
Garcelon alleged voter fraud to try to gain seats in the Republican Legislature, and against a court ruling, began to seat legislators sympathetic to him. Davis was only seated after an 1880 armed insurrection put down by Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War hero. Later that year, the Maine Constitution was changed to allow a plurality-elected governor.
But in 2010, LePage won election over independent Eliot Cutler with less than 38 percent of votes, with Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell taking nearly 55 percent of all votes between them.
Baldacci never won a majority either, but LePage’s election became a sore spot for Democrats, many of whom bore “61%” bumper stickers, signifying the share of Maine that didn’t vote for him. Ranked-choice voting failed in the Legislature in 2013, but it could do better on the ballot.