AUGUSTA – Here’s a question that many Democratic activists are asking: Should Democrats begin a people’s veto campaign to undo the Republican-backed health insurance reforms that Gov. Paul LePage signed into law last week?

It’s big decision.

Hundreds of volunteers would have to be mobilized to collect the 57,277 valid signatures needed to get a repeal question on the state ballot.

The deadline is tight — 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

And after gathering all of those signatures, organizers would have to run a costly statewide campaign for the general election.

A victory at the polls in November — or perhaps in June 2012 — would energize the party’s base, particularly in rural areas where Republicans last year picked up many seats from Democrats.

Defeat, though, would be costly. Democrats could be seen as being out of step with the public, and Republicans could claim a political mandate.

“We could use it against them if they lose,” said Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster. “It’s a great downside.”

Webster, who would likely run the campaign against a people’s veto, is another obstacle for Democrats. He managed the campaign last year that ended in June with voters repealing a tax reform law that the Democratic-controlled Legislature had passed.

Webster built on that success to help the GOP pick up enough seats in November to win control of the House and Senate.

With the stakes so high, Democrats must have a multifaceted campaign in place before they start any petition drive, said Jesse Connolly, who in 2009 managed the campaign against a ballot question that overturned Maine’s law legalizing same-sex marriage.

Campaign leaders must have a good understanding of the level of support they can expect from voters, how much money to spend, how to raise that money and who their opponents will be, Connolly said.

Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said a statewide poll would have to be done to gauge voter support. While Democrats could legally start collecting signatures now, he said, they should wait until the end of the legislative session and see what other laws the GOP majority passes that could galvanize the electorate.

Democrats could seek signatures for more than one people’s veto referendum, Grant said. “We need to see what else is coming.”

The law passed last week overhauls the health insurance market for about 40,000 people — those who buy independently or through employers whose companies have 50 or fewer workers.

The law gives insurance companies more leeway in how much they can charge policyholders based on occupation and age. It also allows insurance companies in four other New England states to sell insurance in Maine.

Many Democrats see the law as a threat to rural Maine because it removes a section of the state’s insurance code that requires insurers’ provider networks to have primary care physicians within a 30-minute drive of policyholders’ homes, and hospitals within an hour’s drive.

The law affects almost every policyholder in the state because it adds a tax on premiums of as much as $4 per person per month, to help cover people with high medical costs. Federal and state workers, including legislators, are not subject to the tax.

David Farmer, a Democrat who was a spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said he doesn’t understand why Democrats are so reluctant to start a people’s veto campaign.

Farmer, who’s now a public relations consultant, said the law would be easy to overturn.

“I don’t think you get one that runs better — a tax that pays insurance companies,” he said.

The decision by GOP leadership to rush the bill to passage without conducting an actuarial study has confused many Mainers about the how the law will affect them, said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, a Democrat from Orono who voted for the bill because Republicans agreed to adopt some modest amendments.

Confusion and anxiety about the law would give a people’s veto campaign a lot of volunteers, she said. “Fear is something that propels people to react and take initiative.”

The Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal group, is likely to lead any petition effort because it can field an army of volunteers. It turned out 80 protesters two weeks ago when the House voted on the bill for the first time.

Spokesman Mike Tipping said it’s clear that many voters have become “energized” by the health insurance overhaul. He said the law will increase premiums for older people, particularly in rural areas.

“It’s important to channel that energy in a positive way and a productive way,” he said, “and a people’s veto could be that way.”

To overturn the law, though, Democrats would have to convince the public that protecting the status quo would be better than accepting any change, Webster said.

The current system, which relies on regulations rather than the free market, is widely recognized as a failure, he said. That’s why voters in November voted so heavily for Republicans, who made insurance reform their top issue, he said.

The law can withstand a people’s veto effort because it is based on sound policy, said Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, who co-chairs the legislative committee that endorsed the bill in a party-line vote.

He said the law will significantly lower health insurance costs for most Mainers.

Democrats can attack it only by making false claims, he said, but that strategy won’t succeed in a long campaign because supporters will be ready to defend it.

“They will run up against the wall,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

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