September 26, 2018
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If lawmakers want fewer referendums, they should act on Maine’s big issues

Liz Theriault | BDN
Liz Theriault | BDN

Updated:

Maine has faced a barrage of referendum questions in recent years. Rather than making it harder to get a question on the ballot, as lawmakers are currently considering, the Legislature should look at why such ballot questions are on the rise.

The Legislature is currently considering a bill, LD 1726, that would, among other things, prohibit gathering petition signatures in a polling place. This goes too far. Already, signature gatherers typically sit at a table that voters can easily walk past as they exit their polling place. This is less invasive than signature gatherers blocking sidewalks to ask for signatures outside of polling places.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says the restrictions should not be passed by lawmakers. Instead, he said his department submitted the bill to foster a discussion about controlling access to polling places as more and more groups ask to be allowed in voting venues.

This is a necessary conversation, but lawmakers should also strongly consider why citizen petitions are on the rise in Maine.

In the first 80 years that citizen initiatives were allowed on the ballot, there were 30 such questions. In the last 25 years — 1992 through 2017 — there have been 42.

This leads many to conclude that it must be too easy to get a question on the ballot. In recent years, lawmakers have proposed increasing — even doubling — the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot and to require statewide support by requiring an equal number of signatures from each state Senate or U.S. House district. The BDN has been supportive of some of these efforts.

But, a different trend has also emerged. With a governor who brags about his propensity to veto legislation and a divided Legislature, including a bloc of Republicans who remain loyal to LePage and sustain his vetoes, many important issues have not been resolved in the State House.

For example, attempts to increase the state’s minimum wage failed in the Legislature. Frustrated, progressive groups worked to get a question raising the Maine minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 on the November 2016 ballot. It passed and the state’s minimum wage saw its second step increase to $10 on Jan. 1, increasing wages for nearly 60,000 Mainers.

Likewise, Maine took steps forward and back to marriage equality. After referendum battles to outlaw discrimination against LGBT Mainers, the Legislature legalized same-sex marriage in May 2009. Maine was the first state to pass such a bill through the Legislature, and Gov. John Baldacci signed it into law. But, days later, a people’s veto was launched. Marriage equality was overturned by voters in November 2009. Backers of marriage equality again gathered signatures to put the question on the ballot in 2012, when it was passed by voters. Maine was the first state in the country where voters, not a court or state assembly, extended marriage rights.

And, then there is Medicaid expansion, which the Legislature passed five times. It was vetoed by LePage each time. In November, voters strongly supported a mostly federally funded expansion of Medicaid to extend health insurance to more low-income Mainers. LePage has already thrown up roadblocks to funding the expansion.

Without the referendum process, or a process that is too rigorous, these and other issues could have remained stalled in Augusta.

Then there is the issue of developers and others who are intent on getting projects approved in Maine. Casino developer Shawn Scott was willing to pay $10 per signature in hopes of building a second casino in Maine, which would have netted him millions of dollars. His gamble failed when voters rejected the referendum question.

Requiring more signatures or prohibiting signature gathering at the polls won’t deter determined developers or national advocacy groups. They’ll just have to spend more money. It will, however, make it harder for grassroots groups to spur action through the referendum process.

That would be a betrayal of Maine’s 100-year-old citizen petition law.

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