Citizen sausage

The Maine Legislature is spending a great deal of time these days wrestling with wording.

The wording of the marijuana legalization law has been found to be misleading and incomplete. Lawmakers have asked that implementation of the law be delayed until they can sort things out.

And the Senate has asked the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to rule on the constitutionality of the ranked-choice voting law. The law may be at odds with the state Constitution. Famously level-headed Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport) said the question must be resolved before the law goes on the books.

The lawmakers aren’t the only ones struggling with new legislation. A 4,000-member workers group, the Restaurant Workers of Maine, is lobbying the Legislature to repeal the new minimum wage law. They were doing fine with their tip revenue, the servers say, tips that will dry up as the minimum wage goes up. Thanks, but no thanks.

More controversy is on the horizon for lawmakers as a determined proposal to open a casino in York County lumbers forward.

And what do they all have in common? They are all citizen initiatives — laws created (or seeking to be created) by popular vote, not through legislative vetting, deliberation and action. The citizen-initiated referendum circumvents that process. The Patriots and Falcons aren’t the only ones capable of an end run.

The crack attributed to Otto von Bismarck — “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” — is particularly applicable to laws made by single-interest groups. The citizen initiative is given an appealing name — An Act to Lower Taxes and Assist Farmers, or some such — and marketed as a people’s campaign. But the signatures on the petition might very well be gathered by a national petition-management company that makes its money securing signatures. With an incentive like that, it’s not surprising that that the rules are occasionally bent — or bought.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said the proponents of the ballot initiative seeking a York County casino or slot machine facility turned in a sufficient number of signatures to send the issue to the voters this fall. The wording of the ballot initiative assures that only gambling promoter Shawn Scott or his associates would be allowed to build the casino. Horseracing Jobs Fairness (good name!) spent $4 million to get the question on the ballot. The money came from Scott’s sister. Power to the people.

It’s not surprising, given the untidy form of some of these initiatives when they arrive in Augusta, that our lawmakers are devoting an extraordinary amount of time to tightening the rules. This coming Monday, Feb. 13, the Legislature will hear bills to change to citizen-initiative process.

Four of the five measures are constitutional resolutions, as the initiative process is in the Constitution.

The citizen-initiative process is broken. If the system is to continue, it requires a major overhaul. We applaud the Maine Legislature for the current session’s commitment to working in civil, conscientious and bipartisan cooperation. If this keeps up, maybe the citizens of Maine would be less inclined to, literally, take the law into their own hands.

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