Over the past several years, a curious dichotomy has emerged in Maine: Liberal ideas succeed at the ballot box, while liberal candidates fail time and time again.
This first began to appear in 2012, when progressives were able to pass marriage equality. Buoyed by this success, they turned their efforts toward the 2014 elections, when Gov. Paul LePage was up for re-election and they had the opportunity to keep the 2nd Congressional District in Democratic hands.
Not only were both of these efforts failures, Republicans also retook control of the state Senate and gained seats in the House. This pattern repeated itself in 2015 and 2016, when progressives successfully used the referendum process to expand Clean Elections, raise taxes to increase education funding and raise the minimum wage, while Democrats failed to recapture the state Senate or defeat Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
So on some level, it was no surprise when the Secretary of State’s Office announced that activists had gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on Medicaid expansion. After all, they’d been pushing for Maine to do so ever since a federal court ruling made that part of the Affordable Care Act optional, but it had been consistently stymied by Republicans in Augusta. With their lack of success in the 2014 election, initiating the process by citizen initiative would seem to be their only remaining option.
What was surprising was their timing: Proponents reportedly collected most of their signatures on Election Day in 2016, and the referendum will appear on the ballot in 2017. Had they begun earlier, it might have been a lengthier (and more expensive) process to collect the signatures, but putting it on the ballot in 2016 could have helped turn out voters to elect Democratic candidates statewide. Failing that, they could have delayed their process slightly and timed their submission so that it would be on the ballot in November 2018, possibly helping to elect a Democrat to the Blaine House.
That means that not only will candidates not benefit from the referendum, the referendum won’t benefit from candidates either. In an even-numbered year, both parties put enormous effort into voter ID and turnout, and that boosts referendums as well. In an odd year, these operations will be entirely up to the referendum supporters.
Data at a national level have suggested that in midterm elections, turnout is lower and voters tend to be older and less diverse, which helps Republican candidates. It’s tough to measure turnout in odd years – only a few states hold statewide elections of any kind – but they’ve been a mixed bag in Maine in the past.
In 2009 – the last odd-numbered year to have a wide variety of referendums – the first attempt to pass marriage equality failed, but so did several tax-cut measures, and an expansion of medical marijuana succeeded. In 2017, Medicaid expansion will only share the ballot with yet another gambling initiative and a bond measure. There’s no doubt what will be the center of attention. Putting the measure on the ballot next year not only provides zero ancillary benefits to Democratic candidates, it’s also a risky decision for Medicaid expansion proponents.
Putting aside politics, the election of President Trump and the continued Republican control of Congress mean that all aspects of the Affordable Care Act are up for review (or “repeal and replacement,” if you like). The so-called promise of federal funding for most of Medicaid expansion always has been a dicey one at best. There’s no such thing as a guarantee in life – if you don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton or the Atlanta Falcons.
However, with avowed Obamacare opponents in complete control of the federal government, that promise has gone completely out the window. Right now, Maine is just as likely to receive zero dollars in federal matching funds as it is 90 percent – and if that gets resolved before November, the number is a lot more likely to be closer to zero.
Of course, it’s questionable whether Maine could have even afforded the 10 percent contribution required under the current law. We remain a poor state, after all – and in other states, the cost of Medicaid expansion has outstripped expectations.
However, now that we have no idea what the federal matching funds might be, proponents are essentially asking a state to write a blank check. That’s not a reasonable or responsible approach to governing, and it’s one that Mainers should reject no matter who’s doing the asking – or for what program.
Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: