AUGUSTA — The Secretary of State’s Office will be buzzing with activity Monday when several referendum campaigns deliver dozens of boxes containing signature petitions to qualify for the November ballot.
The Maine Republican Party might not be among the participants.
Party officials have become increasingly quiet about the plan to put before voters a wide-ranging proposal to cut the state income tax and make changes to the welfare system. Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett has gone from confident to cautious since unveiling the ballot proposal in September. And as of Thursday, the party had not yet scheduled an appointment with election officials to submit its signed petitions.
Other groups, including the campaigns to decriminalize marijuana and to collect a tax “surcharge” from Mainers with over $200,000 in household income to increase education funding, are expected to be in Augusta on Monday, the deadline to submit petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office and initiate a review of signatures by election officials.
The first part of the proposed Republican Party referendum would ask voters if they want to reduce the state’s top income tax rate to 4 percent gradually over a four-year period. Maine’s top rate is now 7.15 percent.
The second part calls for a series of changes to welfare policy, many of which have been sought by some Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, but have failed to get enough support in the Legislature. The welfare changes include requiring drug testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; instituting stronger work requirements; banning the use of food stamp funds to buy liquor, tobacco and other items; and making asylum seekers ineligible for benefits.
Bennett declined to discuss the party’s ballot drive Thursday, saying party officials were still assessing whether the mix of volunteers and paid circulators had collected the 61,123 signatures of registered voters needed to get on the ballot.
REPUBLICANS MAY EXTEND BALLOT DRIVE
Last Friday was the deadline for ballot campaigns to submit their petitions to municipal clerks for initial inspection and certification. On Thursday, clerks at some of the state’s largest municipalities – hot spots for signature collection – reported Republican Party petition totals that ranged from low to modest.
In Lewiston, for example, the party submitted 205 pages of signed petitions. That’s less than the 1,137 pages submitted by the campaign to allow a York County casino, 908 pages for the marijuana legalization campaign, 432 for the education funding initiative and 312 for the campaign to strengthen background checks on gun sales.
There were 218 pages for the Republican initiative in Portland, 140 pages in Sanford, 77 in Bangor, 74 in Westbrook and 36 in Brunswick. The tallies from municipal clerks are imprecise, however, because petition pages are not standardized and may have room for anywhere from 30 to 60 signatures. And in some cases, the pages are only partially filled.
Kathleen Montejo, the Lewiston clerk, said many of the casino petition pages, for example, contained just a handful of signatures.
The incomplete picture has not stopped speculation among conservative activists that the Republican Party ballot drive will likely be delayed until 2017. Bennett already has said that the party may wait until next year.
“I can’t honestly say if we’ll make it or not,” he said Jan. 6. “It’s a big effort. If we don’t make it in 2016, we’ll bring it back in 2017.”
That comment contrasts with Bennett’s belief in late October that the party would make the 2016 ballot.
“We’re going to get this on the ballot no matter what,” he said at that time, adding that the ballot campaign would use paid circulators if necessary.
The party reported spending just shy of $22,000 on signature gathering and field work through Dec. 31, according to campaign finance reports. Updated reports won’t be available until April.
LATE START, GOVERNOR BACKS EFFORT
The party’s referendum bid has been viewed with skepticism from the outset. Some Republican activists worried that the effort would siphon too much money from the party treasury, leaving less for Republican legislative races.
The party had spent more than $40,000 overall on the ballot drive through the end of December.
Others believed that the party just couldn’t make the ballot in 2016; the bid was launched in late September and the final language for the legislation wasn’t printed until the day before Election Day – a crucial day for signature collection. Bennett told the Press Herald that the party was able to circulate petitions at 135 polling places by Election Day. There were 533 polling places open that day, according to the secretary of state.
The party’s field operation wasn’t fully in place on Election Day. In some polling places, such as in Lewiston, petition circulators for a referendum to legalize marijuana also were soliciting signatures for the Republican referendum.
The campaign has run nearly in tandem with LePage’s series of town hall appearances. While the governor has made sparing reference to the referendum, its goals largely mirror the policy initiatives he has touted on the road tour. Also, digital evidence contained within early versions of the legislation showed that LePage officials drafted the referendum.
The governor’s proposals have failed to attract widespread support in a Legislature divided between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
His plans to cut the state income tax have created a division among Republicans, many of whom fear that a steep income tax reduction will ultimately lead to increasing the state sales tax and removing exemptions for currently taxed goods and services.
It’s unclear whether ambivalence among Republicans over the income tax cut in the referendum has hindered the party’s petition effort. The campaign has maintained a relatively low profile since LePage made a public call for volunteer reinforcements in December.
The Republican referendum is one of seven originally targeted for the November ballot. A proposal to establish ranked-choice voting already has qualified. Election officials are now working to certify petitions for the minimum wage and background check campaigns.
The education funding campaign, York County casino, marijuana legalization and Republican campaigns have until Monday to submit their signatures for certification.