In 1908, Maine became one of the first states to begin a citizen initiative and people’s veto process. That year the state constitution was amended to add this language: “But the people reserve to themselves power to propose laws and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the Legislature, and also reserve power at their own option to approve or reject at the polls any Act, bill, resolve or resolution passed by the joint action of both houses of the Legislature, and the style of their laws and Act shall be, ‘Be it enacted by the people of the State of Maine.’”
“The purpose of the amendment was to make the people the final arbiters of legislation,” legal scholar Marshall Tinkle wrote in his 1992 book “The Maine Constitution: A reference guide.”
As for who the “people” are, the Maine Constitution defines them as “the electors of the State qualified to vote for Governor.” The governor is qualified to vote for himself, so legally, he can submit a citizen initiative, but this probably isn’t what voters envisioned more than a century ago.
Last week, Gov. Paul LePage said he would no longer work with the Legislature because of “too much hatred.” Instead, he told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, for the rest of his term he will go directly to the people through the citizen initiative process, pursuing a tax reform package and another on welfare reform.
Later in the week, the Maine Republican Party unveiled a single ballot question that asks about lowering the state income tax and a laundry-list of welfare restrictions. An income tax reduction and most of those same welfare changes were rejected by the Legislature earlier this year.
LePage administration staff drafted the proposed ballot question, according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald.
“The purpose [of Amendment XXXI] was to give a more direct voice to the people,” Tinkle said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News Friday. “What [LePage] is proposing is counter to the spirit of the amendment.”
“This is not what they had in mind,” he said of the Progressive Movement that successfully pushed for the adoption of citizen initiatives in several states in the early 20th century. In Maine, the constitutional amendment received more than twice as many yes votes as no votes in the 1908 referendum.
The state’s chief executive can already submit legislation — at any time, versus lawmakers who are limited as to when they can put in bills — and, because of the power of his office, has a bully pulpit from which to champion his ideas.
LePage seems to forget that each member of the Legislature was elected by the people in his or her district. Collectively, these representatives represent the people of Maine as much as the governor does.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Winterport businessman who has emerged as a leading Republican voice of reason and compromise in the Legislature, summed up the situation perfectly in an interview with the Bangor Daily News last week.
“I get the fact that the governor has an agenda, but in a representative democracy there’s a lot of people with ideas,” Thibodeau said. “You have to be willing to work with everyone in the process. No one person gets to dictate all aspects of policy.”
If the governor, and the GOP, want different outcomes in the State House, they should work to elect different legislators, rather than trying to go around those who are currently serving their constituents.