Combining ballot issues questioned

To split or not to split, that is the question. And the question in question is the citizens’ initiative proposed by Maine Republicans. It’s a little question: “Do you want to reform welfare and reduce taxes?” But it is a question that covers vast policy turf.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap recommended that the issues go forward on the ballot separately, one for tax reduction and one for welfare reform. Nevertheless, Republicans will gather signatures for the initiative as a single question. This puts “we, the people” in a difficult position. These major policy changes are being put forward as a simple yes or no, with very little detail about what would change and how.

For tax reform, how much revenue will be lost? How will existing programs be funded, or which existing programs will be reduced or eliminated? For welfare reform, what exactly will be reformed? And who will the reforms affect? Even if the question is ultimately divided, neither one will reflect the complexity of the proposals.

And what of the voter who supports one proposal but not the other? His or her only choice now is to sign on to both or neither. And that is precisely the odds Republicans are playing. Whether the question is divided later or not, both issues will make it to the ballot unless the whole thing goes down.

There are legal subtleties regarding the secretary of state’s latitude in making the decision about one question versus two. In a letter to Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, Director of Elections Melissa Packard points out that the state constitution “does not expressly restrict initiatives to a single subject,” and therefore, the secretary’s office “does not have authority … to require you to do so.”

However, should enough signatures be gathered to put the question to the voters, the requirements would change. Once the question is approved for a vote, state law says the “proper suggested format is a separate question for each issue.” Doubtless, Republicans will make much of the word “suggested.”

In her letter, Packard lays out the reasons she recommends the question ultimately be divided. The two proposals would revise two different titles in Maine statute. Were they legislation, these issues would be “submitted as two separate bills, which would be referred to two separate standing committees … .”

Further, a voter could “reasonably have different opinions” on the issues, so dividing the question “would help voters to better understand the subject matter,” and the questions are “severable and can be enacted or rejected separately without negating the intent” of the petition.

The elections office has drafted legislation that divides the question into a Part A for the welfare reform question and a Part B for the income-tax reduction proposal. The Republicans accepted the language, but reserved their right to continue to press for a single question if their proposal goes to a ballot. Once a fiscal note is prepared, the sponsors will have until Feb. 1 to gather more than 61,000 signatures.

That is a little less than three months away. Petitions likely will not be ready by Election Day, always a good time to gather a lot of signatures in a hurry. But even if they are, it is an off-cycle election with low voter turnout expected.

And then comes December, a month which is largely a write-off for anything other than holidaying. By January, we could be snowbound, and even if we can get out of our driveways, there is nowhere to go. Crowds will be in short supply, and petition circulators will be grinding out short yardage.

Sponsors of the petition are casting it as the only way to get around Democratic opposition to welfare reform and eliminating the income tax. Aside from that being how a democracy works, taking it to the people is not ideal for either of these policy questions, both of which are full of parts and pieces of which most voters will have an imperfect understanding.

Referendum initiatives are best for questions where what you see is what you get, such as term limits for legislators. Want ‘em or not? As for this proposal, it is not that simple. It reduces state income tax to 4 percent by 2021. It creates a Tax Relief Fund for Mainers that could be used to completely eliminate the income tax.

It would require the Department of Agriculture to seek an annual waiver “to allow the department to impose nutritional requirements” on food purchases in the food supplement program.

It would require drug testing and screening for “substance use disorders” for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and it would terminate cash assistance for anyone refusing to take the test. It would prohibit accessing electronic benefits from outside the state. It would prohibit using electronic benefits transfers for tobacco, alcohol, gambling, bail, tattoos or travel services provided by a travel agent.

Some of these are no doubt sensible reforms. But it is just too complicated to put them before the voters as simply “tax reduction” or “welfare reform.” The legislative process can be frustratingly slow for reformers, but should not be bypassed if at first they don’t succeed.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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