After flurry of campaigns, Maine lawmakers will consider restricting citizen initiatives

Posted Dec. 03, 2016, at 1 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 04, 2016, at 9 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As the Maine Legislature grapples with implementation of four referendum questions passed by voters in November, it also will consider ways to restrict the citizen initiative process that put them on the ballot.

Gridlock during the six-year tenure of Gov. Paul LePage has made the citizen initiative process a more preferred avenue for change; there have been 10 proposed since he took office in 2011, as many as there were in the 60 years after Maine’s first in 1911.

But this year was perhaps the most consequential ever. Campaigns spent more than $18 million, and Mainers passed marijuana legalization (barring a recount), a surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education, a higher minimum wage and a first-in-the-nation statewide ranked-choice voting system.

Now, some lawmakers are looking to raise the bar to get questions on the ballot, which now requires signatures equaling the number of 10 percent of voters in the past gubernatorial election — or about 61,000 now. But it will face opposition from some Democrats and activists.

Earlier this month, LePage said he’ll propose a constitutional amendment making campaigns seeking a citizen-initiated referendum to get signatures proportionally in every county — an idea that may be unconstitutional.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is pushing a different amendment to apply the 10 percent threshold to each of Maine’s two congressional districts, which aims to push signature collection efforts away from cities — particularly Portland.

“It won’t be something that’s going to stop things from getting on the ballot, but what I think it will do is … allow more of the state a chance to weigh in on what gets on the ballot,” David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director, said.

It comes as a response to the amount of money in the referendum process. The sportsman’s alliance was a key part of coalitions that fended off a 2014 effort to ban methods of bear hunting and another this year to mandate background checks on private gun sales.

On the latter, they were up against Everytown for Gun Safety, which was founded by New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and virtually funded the entire Maine background check campaign, which cost $6 million.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former Maine secretary of state, said he has seen the process evolve from “filling a need” in government to “a cottage industry where, pretty much, those who have access to a major amount of money can come in and buy a referendum effort.”

“I think the process has gotten out of hand,” Diamond said. “I think something has to be done about it.”

Trahan said next year’s congressional district bill will be the same as a version that fell just four votes shy of a needed two-thirds majority in the Democrat-led House of Representatives last year. Constitutional amendments passed by the Legislature then go to voters for approval.

It’ll be sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Kinney, R-Limington, who also will back a bill making other changes to the system, including an online complaint system for petition fraud.

LePage may be fighting an uphill battle with his proposal, as the Maine secretary of state’s office said last year that a county proposal would likely be struck down by the courts, but a district proposal wouldn’t because the populations are relatively equal.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Trahan said his group is backing the district proposal because LePage’s would “drag us through the courts indefinitely, and this problem would not get solved.”

But many who have used the process say the bar is high enough, including Mike Tipping, the spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, which backed the minimum wage referendum and is part of a coalition proposing another one on Medicaid expansion.

Before this year, Maine last increased its minimum wage in 2008. After this year’s proposal was raised, business groups that had opposed past minimum wage increases came to the table with a smaller compromise that was rejected by Democrats as being too little and too late.

“I think this is something the citizens should be able to do when certain actors have consciously ground the system to a halt,” Tipping said.

That’s the flip side to an argument made by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who said he’s under pressure from constituents to tighten the process.

“It was supposed to give people the voice if the Legislature was unwilling or unable to act, but a lot of these issues were already put through the Legislature and turned down because we didn’t think it was in the best interest of Maine,” he said.

Diamond said he favors the district split, but it’s sure to face wariness from other Democrats.

Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, the likely incoming House speaker, called it “a good process, especially when you continue to see government retreat to its corners when it comes to getting things done.”

“I’m open to looking at what the future of this process should be, but so far, I’m not seeing a proposal that makes any sense and isn’t without flaws,” she said.

BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

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