January 13, 2020
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New law a good start for referendum reform

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
People picking up their ballots at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor last year.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is generally good advice — but not always. Take a look at Maine’s experience with referendum questions, for instance.

Our referendum process is not broken; it’s general framework allows for citizens to initiate legislation themselves rather than through their elected representatives, and that’s a good and necessary power for the people to have. But that also requires trust in the process, and as we’ve seen in recent years and recent referendum campaigns, it has been clouded in part by out-of-state spending, concerns about state constitutionality, and a growing and unhelpful sense that results favor some parts of Maine over others.

There are some clear fixes needed to make this process more transparent, informative and representative of the entire state. Encouragingly, one of those fixes was passed and signed into law last week.

Rep. Dick Bradstreet, a Republican from Vassalboro, introduced LD 1209 this session to require that the Legislature hold a public hearing on any citizen’s initiative before it goes to the voters. This is the type of no-nonsense, pro-transparency measure that made us wonder why it hasn’t been required all along.

One of several sensible referendum reforms proposed in Augusta this session, LD 1209 passed the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee with an amendment before passing both the Maine House and Senate. Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill last Thursday.

“We all benefit from greater transparency and unbiased information before making important decisions,” Bradstreet said in a statement from the governor’s office.

“I’m happy to see this common-sense bill gain broad bipartisan support,” assistant Senate Republican leader Jeff Timberlake added. “This new law will bring much needed transparency to the referendum system by requiring every measure be vetted by the Legislature before it is sent out for a vote. The more people know about a referendum and its financial backers before they vote, the better.”

It was no surprise to see Republicans line up once again in support of referendum reform, as calls for these process improvements have largely come from that side of the political aisle. In our minds, there was an open question as to whether a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Blaine House would embrace any changes at all to the referendum process. With a 32-3 vote in the Senate, no signaled opposition in the House, and the governor’s signature on this worthwhile legislation, we’re happy to report that our skepticism was misplaced.

“Good public policy is best achieved through robust discussion and debate,” Mills said in a statement. “By signing this legislation into law, we are strengthening the referendum process and ensuring that the people of Maine have access to critical information through the public hearing process so they can make informed decisions on the questions before them.”

While the final product passed into law is slightly weaker than the original bill — the Legislature can waive a hearing on a referendum question by a two-thirds vote of each chamber — Bradstreet told the BDN he was satisfied with the work done in committee and didn’t believe the amendment undermined the bill. The Maine Heritage Policy Center agreed, calling the two-thirds provision an “exceptionally high threshold that will be difficult to reach.”

We similarly see value in this new hearing requirement, but hope legislators don’t consider their work on referendum reform to be complete. We previously called LD 1209 the most obvious and achievable of the referendum proposals, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that should pass. There are other valuable ideas, such as requiring that a certain percentage of referendum signatures come from each congressional district and providing better information on the ballot, which deserve support in Augusta.

Maine’s referendum process isn’t broken. But we should keep taking reasonable steps to fix it.

 



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