Voters fill out ballots in the gym at Gorham Middle School, Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

There are multiple ways to improve how we conduct citizen’s initiatives in Maine to ensure that voters across the state are empowered and informed throughout the process. Of the several sensible options for referendum reform before the Legislature this session, perhaps the most obvious and achievable is a proposal to hold legislative hearings on any citizen’s initiative before voters weigh in at the ballot box.

“A public hearing may not answer all the questions that should be answered, but it would be better than not having any real discussions at all,” the bill’s author, Republican Rep. Dick Bradstreet of Vassalboro, testified before the State and Local Government Committee last week. “We would be able to hear the pros and cons in an orderly fashion and be able to recognize what some of a proposal’s unintended consequences may be.”

Bradstreet’s insinuation that “real discussions” don’t currently happen with referendum questions is hyperbolic, but his overall point stands that a hearing would provide an additional and needed avenue to dig deeper into — and better understand — important questions coming before Maine voters.

Legislators should pay particular attention to the testimony from the secretary of state’s office as they consider Bradstreet’s bill, LD 1209. While secretary of state’s staff have testified neither for nor against several referendum-related bills this session, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn offered her office’s support for the general concept of hearings for citizen’s initiatives.

“Although we believe that the Legislature already can hold public hearings and work sessions on initiated bills, pursuant to the joint rules, we know that many of the initiatives that went to the voters in the past few elections did not have a public hearing or work session,” Flynn said in her testimony. “We believe that holding a public hearing on each initiated bill will create a public record and generate valuable information about the meaning and the possible effects of the bill, including fiscal impacts.”

As Flynn points out, the additional debate provided by these hearings would not only inform voters, but the work of the secretary of state’s office as well.

“We think that this information will further inform the subsequent campaign and debate and provide another source of information for the voters to consider,” Flynn continued. “It certainly will be helpful to the Secretary of State as we draft the ballot questions for public comment by the voters.”

This proposal has the added benefit of providing more information to voters with minimal cost to the state. As Adam Crepeau of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center pointed out in his testimony in favor of Bradstreet’s bill, “public hearings do not impose up-front costs on the public and allow for all sides of the issue to express their views.”

Flynn frames her office’s support for LD 1209 in lieu of other potentially more costly proposals that would require additional information about referendums directly on the ballot, such as Rep. Joshua Morris’ bill to require a fiscal impact statement with each question. However, these two approaches shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. The secretary of state is legitimately concerned about the additional cost of printing longer ballots, but we believe those potential costs would be justified by the resulting increase to voter awareness.

There’s no doubt that the current push for referendum reform is coming overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, from Republicans. And some proposals, including another from Morris to require 60 percent approval to pass a referendum rather than a simple majority, would likely do more to scuttle the process than improve it. But there are reasonable tweaks, like the one proposed by Bradstreet, that both parties should support.

“The right of the people to petition for referendum questions should not be compromised, and this bill respects that,” Bradstreet testified.

With the recent referendum successes of more left-leaning policies — including a minimum wage increase, ranked-choice voting and marijuana legalization all passed in 2016 — the Democrat-controlled Legislature may be less inclined to take a hard and necessary look at our existing process. But they actually can embrace referendum reform and make the process stronger at the same time.

Legislators in both parties should look past electoral wins and losses, and recognize opportunities such as LD 1209 to make the citizen’s initiative process more informative and engaging while respecting the voices of Maine people across the state.