AUGUSTA –– A legislative panel unanimously endorsed a bill Wednesday that would restrict how signatures are gathered for ballot initiatives.

The vote by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee increases the odds that the proposal will get the full Legislature’s support. If approved, the bill would make it more difficult for groups to use out-of-state residents in signature-gathering to advance ballot initiatives in Maine.

That could affect a future effort by the Humane Society of the United States to initiate another referendum – its third – calling for new restrictions on bear hunting practices in Maine. It could also potentially affect efforts to legalize marijuana here.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stanley Short, D-Pittsfield, was drafted and supported by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the hunting and conservation group that led the opposition against last year’s failed initiative to ban certain bear hunting practices.

Lawmakers amended Short’s bill, L.D. 176, to address concerns that it could restrict the constitutional right to political speech. Initially, the bill would have required anyone who gathers signatures to wear a badge with their first and last names and the name of the organization employing them, and to disclose their employment history to the state. Violation of those and other changes would be a Class E crime.

Similar restrictions have been enacted and overturned in other states, including Colorado, which had its badge requirement struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999. The court ruled that the restrictions violated petition gatherers’ right to speak anonymously.

The amended bill instead defines the role, duties and responsibilities of signature gatherers to ensure the work is being done primarily by Maine residents.

Maine is one of at least 20 states that allow its citizens to use ballot questions to change, repeal or enact laws.

A provision in the Maine Constitution requires that those who circulate petitions be Maine residents. However, campaigns have used nonresidents over the years to witness, and in some instances, play an active role in the process, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance. Trahan accused the Humane Society of exploiting this loophole in a “shady, if not illegal” way while gathering signatures in 2013.

The amended bill aims to close the loophole by ensuring that Maine residents are the ones explaining the ballot initiative and asking people to sign the petition. Right now, out-of-state professionals can perform those duties while the Maine signature-gatherer stands by because current law doesn’t define the Mainer’s role.

The Humane Society opposes the bill. Advocates for the bear-hunt restrictions were primarily bankrolled by the Humane Society, a national group that has pushed for hunting restrictions in other states. Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s CEO, told the Portland Press Herald in February that the organization is seriously considering another referendum on bear hunting practices in Maine.

The Humane Society and its use of a California-based signature-gathering company were the impetus for Short’s bill. In addition to amending the proposal Wednesday to address potential constitutional challenges, lawmakers added an emergency provision that would make the new restrictions take effect upon the bill’s signing by Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage has not said whether he would support the bill.

During the public hearing on Short’s bill in February, Katie Hansberry, director of the Maine chapter of the Human Society, defended the organization’s use of PCI Consulting, a firm that was paid over $228,000 by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting to help get the initiative on the 2014 ballot. Hansberry said the campaign had to hire the company because the initiative had a late start.

Short’s bill will be taken up by the House of Representatives for a floor vote at a later date.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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