AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature will consider a bill this session that would make it harder for out-of-staters to work on citizen initiatives – a sign of political fallout from the failed 2014 bid to ban certain methods of bear hunting statewide.

Rep. Stanley Short, D-Pittsfield, said he will sponsor the bill for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a pro-hunting group that led opposition to a referendum that would have banned bear baiting, trapping and hounding in Maine and was rejected by 53 percent of state voters.

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the campaign behind the referendum that was funded mostly by The Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group, recruited out-of-state workers to get the question on the ballot.

A Maine law that banned paying circulators by the signature was struck down in 1999 as unconstitutional. Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said it’s now a common practice. However, while the state Constitution says petition circulators must be Maine residents, a loophole allows out-of-staters to do much of the work virtually anonymously.

The text of the bill hasn’t been released yet, but a draft provided by David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director, says it will clarify state law to say only Mainers can ask for signatures during citizen initiative and people’s veto drives, processes that allow citizens to make and repeal laws, respectively.

It would also make paid signature-gatherers for initiatives register with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. While gathering signatures, they would have to wear a badge that says their name, residence and who’s paying them. They would also have to tell the state what they’re paid and how many signatures they gather. Violating the new provisions would be a misdemeanor crime.

Trahan, a former Republican state lawmaker, said his competitors’ reliance on out-of-state “mercenaries” crossed a line of propriety and resulted in an election that was “almost like a Hollywood production.”

“It’s really, in a sense, buying our referendum process,” he said, “and that’s an issue for me.”

However, Katie Hansberry, who ran Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, said the bill would make it harder to get measures on the ballot, which is difficult as it is.

“We don’t feel that these changes are necessary or warranted,” she said.

PAYING FOR SIGNATURE GATHERING

During the campaign, Hansberry’s side paid PCI Consultants Inc., a California firm, nearly $179,000 for “signature gathering support,” according to filings. The required signatures to get the measure on the ballot were submitted to Dunlap’s office in March. Hansberry said there was a tight four-month window to get signatures, and paid gatherers supplemented the efforts of approximately 200 volunteers.

Some of the money paid to PCI was apparently passed to Ballot Access LLC, run by John Michael, a former independent state legislator from Auburn who put his phone number in online ads recruiting signature gatherers in Maine and elsewhere. Neither Michael nor Angelo Paparella, PCI’s president, would say how much was paid to Michael’s firm or how many signatures were paid for.

The state Constitution says petition circulators must live in Maine, but it doesn’t distinguish between someone who gathers a signature or someone who witnesses one. That allows witnesses to take official credit for signatures gathered by someone else. The Maine witnesses must sign an affidavit swearing that they were the circulators, but Dunlap said it’s impossible for his office to know for sure.

“Election law is very tightly written, but if you find a loophole, you can drive a Mack truck through it,” he said, “because a loophole is a loophole is a loophole.”

An online ad looking to recruit Mainers to the bear effort said that out-of-state people are paired with “local folks who witness the voters signing petitions.” Another ad looking to attract out-of-staters urged readers not to inquire if they were “unwilling to stick with the witness.” Ads said that witnesses would be paid at least $60 per day, while out-of-state gatherers would get $2 per signature with a minimum of 350 signatures weekly.

Hansberry said her group will keep working to ban bear hounding and trapping, methods she said would likely be less popular with Maine’s electorate than bear baiting, which is the most common way to hunt bears.

Paparella, whose firm works to collect signatures across the nation, called the proposed bill “a cowardly way to attack the initiative process,” saying the people who sign the petitions are more important than the people who ask them to sign. “The more bureaucratic roadblocks they throw up, the more expensive the process gets and the more it gets limited to special interests,” he said.

Added Michael, “Their approach to defending the Second Amendment is destroying the First Amendment.”

But Trahan said the bill isn’t designed to make any future challenge more difficult. Trahan has worked on other referendums, including a 2009 campaign that successfully repealed tax changes, and he said he loves the process and wants to improve the system.

“Just the fact that any group in the world could come in and cut a check and get their issue on the ballot,” Trahan said, “that should send a chill down everyone’s back in the state of Maine.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

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Twitter: @mikeshepherdme