Balancing two Maines

The Legislature is approaching its mandated April deadline with a flurry of bills submitted near the end of a session full of huge challenges. LD 31 might be one of the most important bills submitted.

LD 31 is an amendment to the Maine Constitution requiring that signatures on direct initiative of legislation come from each congressional district. It proposes that signatures for any ballot initiative proposal be captured more broadly and not rest solely on support from, say, the urban southern population centers.

Since the early 1900s, the start of the Progressive Era, proponents of citizen-sponsored initiatives have sought to overturn the power of the state legislatures with direct and indirect citizen ballot efforts. Maine became the first eastern state to amend its constitution, allowing such acts in 1909. Nationally, ballot referendums are successful about 40 percent of the time.

Until 2006, the majority of Maine’s referendums concerned minor constitutional amendments dealing with ballot issues and fine-tuning the initiative process, in retrospect, perhaps setting the table for larger goals. In the ensuing dozen years, we have experienced numerous, large-scale initiatives seeking to make sweeping changes. From school funding mandates to racino/casino sponsorships, from bear hunting to same-sex marriage, Medicaid expansion to minimum wage law, and from income tax surcharges to ranked-choice voting and personal marijuana consumption.

Mainers have been whipsawed by referendums, many of which have been loosely crafted, needing improvements by the legislature — the same body that wouldn’t pass the proposal in the first place, often for good reasons. The minimum wage law, for example, has been substantively changed, with Hancock County tipped workers among those arguing for the fixes. Meaningful legislation and laws benefit from trust and honest debate.

Proponents of referendums that need significant rewriting often protest that the legislature is overturning “the will of the people.” That claim disregards the need for clearly stated legislation that will hold up when challenged in court — a key point in support of public hearings conducted by a deliberative, representative legislature that represents all citizens.

Changing the status quo involves risk. Challengers willing to make positive change are to be congratulated and supported for their vision and efforts. However, partisan political efforts lacking the participation of impacted citizens seldom become fair or settled law.

LD 31 is a good start but may not go far enough. Perhaps each Maine county, rather than just the two congressional districts, should be represented in any signature-gathering referendum process, so that the “will of the people” is a more nuanced representation of all Mainers.

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