Republican state lawmakers are again proposing an amendment to the Maine Constitution to make it more difficult for citizens to get a question on the ballot, which they say would act as a “speed bump” for voter-initiated reforms.
The amendment, introduced by state Sen. Brad Farrin (R-Somerset), would require that signatures be gathered proportionately from each of the state’s two congressional districts. It is part of a suite of anti-referendum legislation currently being considered in the state legislature, which also includes a measure to amend the constitution to prohibit new taxes or fees from being decided by ballot initiative.
“I’ve used the term speed bump a couple of time in regards to this change,” Farrin said Monday in his public testimony on behalf of LD 255, an amendment bill in front of the legislature’s Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee. “Signature collectors will still go to the easiest places to get signatures, but at least they will be from the First and Second Congressional Districts.”
Farrin claims an amendment is necessary to ensure Second District voters are heard in the referendum process, which he painted as wholly controlled by out-of-state special interests.
Opponents of the proposed amendment say it is instead an ideological attempt to impede the ability of voters to bring issues to ballot, particularly those that Republicans do not support, and would erode Mainers’ right to petition their government when the legislature is unable or unwilling to act, such as in the repeated failure of lawmakers to expand Medicaid to 70,000 Mainers.
“On the issue of [out-of-state] money, the voters have demonstrated their wisdom. They voted against the York County casino despite the significant money that was dumped on one side of that campaign,” John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association testified in opposition to the bill.
Kosinski worked on the successful 2016 ballot campaign to apply a 3-percent surcharge on the wealthiest Mainers to allow the state fund 55 percent of K-12 schools. He says he sees the referendum process as a powerful democratic tool.
“After years of people coming to [the Maine State House], asking for the 55 percent, but never finding a common solution to the problem, our members proposed a solution to the problem, which was to undo the tax cuts for the very top and instead begin the process of fully funding our schools,” he said, “as voters demanded in 2003 and 2004 and reaffirmed with their vote in 2016.”
Leaving legislating to the ‘adults in the room’
Former three-term Republican lawmaker John Picchiotti spoke in favor of Farrin’s proposed constitutional amendment, advocating that the referendum process should “require these groups to work a little harder” and perhaps pursue a legislative path instead.
“In my time in Augusta, I greatly appreciated that myself and my colleagues often served as the adults in the room,” said Picchiotti.
During his time in office, Picchiotti became widely known for a series of bigoted and racists memes and comments he made on social media, often targeting Muslims and people of color. An editorial in his local newspaper called his words “hateful and dehumanizing, deceptive and inflammatory, and they have no place in the public discourse.”
Farrin’s bill is identical to LD 31 which died in the previous legislative session, falling short of the two-thirds support required to send it to voters as a constitutional amendment.
Twenty-four states currently have laws allowing their citizens to bring issues to ballot by popular referendum. Twelve of those state have a geographic requirement for signatures to launch citizen referendums, but almost all also have lower requirements than Maine for the relative number of signatures that must be gathered to trigger a vote.
While lawsuit have challenged similar proposed requirements, arguing they are unduly burdensome on the petition collectors, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Nevada requirement that petitions be collected from each of its four congressional districts, saying it did not violate constitutional equal-protection provisions, as each district has roughly equal populations.
“We kinda picked this [proposed amendment] because we knew it had met all the [legal] challenges and was actually the lowest bar to get to,” Farrin explained to the committee.
Proposal for even greater restrictions
The Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee also heard public testimony for a similar amendment bill sponsored by state Rep. Trey Stewart (R-Presque Isle), which would place an even greater geographic requirement on ballot petitioners.
Stewart’s bill, LD 374, calls for signatures to be gathered from each of Maine’s 35 state senate districts.
“Of course we are talking about the citizens of Maine’s first amendment rights,” said committee member state Rep. Kent Ackley (I-Monmouth) while questioning Stewart. “My constituents too share the concern about having their voices heard, especially when issues go unaddressed by government. Your bill suggests we ought to have a certain percentage of 35 different districts around the state all come to an agreement.”
He pointed to case law where requiring large numbers of geographic areas to be represented were struck down. “Such a high thresholds essentially negates the ability of the citizens to exercise their rights when the legislature refuses to act.”
(Photo: Andrew Skudder | Creative Commons via flickr)