Maine Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers at his desk in the State House in Augusta in this August 2019 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution providing “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food” in a move that could lead to a referendum on the question.

The bipartisan bill from Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, would protect Mainers’ rights to collect food as long as they do not trespass or steal from another or abuse public lands or natural resources. The exact effect of the bill is unclear. Maine’s agriculture department was neutral on the bill but noted it would be likely subject to court interpretation

The idea has been floated in prior bills before, most recently from Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and has a wide array of sponsors, including House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town. An amended version was backed in a 104-41 House vote, easily clearing the two-thirds threshold eventually needed in both chambers to send it to Maine voters. It goes to the Senate.

Opposition in the House came from Faulkingham’s fellow Republicans, who questioned the measure’s effect on property rights and land access. The Maine Municipal Association also opposed it, saying it would create conflict with municipalities, as did the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, who feared it could open the door to animal abuse.

“I think most of us here agree we have every right to grow, raise, harvest and choose our own food, on our own property,” said House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, in a long speech against the bill. “But this isn’t limited to just that.”

But bill co-sponsor Rep. William Pluecker, I-Warren, said the bill is meant to enshrine a person’s ability to decide how to feed themselves without government interference. He differentiated it from Maine’s first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law, which allows municipalities to grant local producers the ability to sell certain foods from the point of origin.

“This bill is about how you produce food for your family,” he said, “… and if we believe in the ability of people to feed themselves from whatever walk of life they come from, you would vote for this bill.”

Faulkingham said he was disappointed by his colleagues’ opposition but was optimistic about the bill’s initial support.

“This is truly a grassroots effort,” he said, “and that’s where it came from — it came from these organic farmers.”