Lawmakers target ballot measures
By MARINA VILLENEUVE
Feb. 10, 2017
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Lawmakers and GOP Gov. Paul LePage say it's time to rethink how questions with far-reaching consequences get on the November ballot.
Critics argue Maine's constitution and state law allow millions of out-of-state dollars to fund costly campaigns that mislead voters, shut out the voice of the Maine people and cause wide-reaching economic consequences. And as more conservatives gain control of Republican state legislatures, they claim that ballot questions are increasingly a way for liberals nationwide to advance their agenda.
"They are doing an end run around the Legislature by hijacking the citizens' referendum process," LePage said in his formal State of the State address this week. He's called for a constitutional amendment to require petition signatures collected proportionally from each county, and has claimed that Maine voters didn't understand the ballot questions they approved last fall raising the minimum wage and taxes on the rich.
Republican Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake said he wants to better inform the public with his legislation — which would require public hearings on ballot questions and the text of a direct initiative printed on the ballot.
"If the public's going to act and play the role of the Legislature, then they need to have the information like the Legislature," Timberlake said. He noted that ballot measures are already available online and that his proposal could be cost prohibitive, but suggested that ballots could have longer summaries.
Leaders of recent ballot campaigns argue that Maine's system is already too restrictive, and that reforms would just make it harder for small grassroots groups to collect the needed 61,000 signatures. Maine can't legally stake out parking lots or wait outside grocery stores like in California, and they maintain that petition drives must go through the "tedious" and "expensive" process of mailing petitions to every town.
David Boyer, who headed the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, said that requiring signatures from each county would only create more barriers, noting that there is already a requirement that petition circulators register to vote in Maine. "It's to the detriment of citizens that want to be engaged at the process and try to put something on the ballot organically," he said.
Currently, 24 states allow ballot initiatives. Republicans in states like Arizona and South Dakota are considering changes like limiting out-of-state contributions and requiring signatures to be collected from a wide swath of the state.
In Maine, lawmakers have proposed about 20 bills to revamp ballot measures. At least one bill comes from a Democrat, while the rest are authored by Republicans.
"We need to reform the referendum process and we need to return to a representative government," LePage said this week, complaining that out-of-state groups that gather signatures in more populated and liberal southern Maine control the citizen initiative process and are endangering Maine's "fragile" economy.
In the past, Maine conservative and liberal grassroots groups alike have opposed efforts to reign in ballot measures. Even well-funded ballot campaigns haven't always worked — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign last year failed to pass a measure requiring universal background checks for firearms after it ran up against resistance from Maine gun rights groups and the Natural Rifle Association.
Two ballot questions passed narrowly last year — one approving marijuana legalization and the other creating a new 3 percent surtax on individual incomes over $200,000 to fund schools. The state's highest court will decide this spring whether to weigh in on the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting following concern from several Republican and Democratic senators about the voter-approved measure. Maine voters also approved raising the minimum wage, but LePage, Timberlake and others have argued voters didn't know the nuances of the hike, like how it'd impact tipped workers.
Maine People's Alliance spokesman Mike Tipping, whose group led the fight for the hike, said citizen initiatives have long let the people's will be heard on issues caught up in partisan gridlock. For instance, more Mainers voted for the minimum wage question than for the U.S. president.