Apart from the biannual wrangling over the budget, much of the focus of the legislative session thus far has been on bills that were already passed. If that seems foolish to you, with Maine facing so many pressing problems that need to be addressed, then rest assured you aren’t the only one.

The problem here, though, is less the content of the bills than how they were passed. You see, these bills were passed as citizen initiatives at the ballot box rather than by the Legislature. That means they didn’t quite have to run the same gantlet as most bills in Augusta, going through committee hearings and floor votes and facing the threat of possible veto by the governor.

Legislators, of course, hate that, as do the entrenched special interests in Augusta. So as is often the case after a citizen initiative has been approved by the voters, many of them are now engaging in efforts to modify these laws after they were approved. Right now, the debate is focused on the tax surcharge that increases funding for education and on the minimum-wage hike. A number of Republican legislators are proposing bills that would limit or completely negate these citizen initiatives. They’re right to be concerned, as there’s good reason to think these new laws could have a negative impact on the state’s economy.

Democrats, of course, seem not to share those concerns: They are standing by the outcomes of the referendums, by and large. They’ve been arguing that Maine voters knew very well what they were doing when they supported these policies, and that Maine legislators shouldn’t override the will of the voters by ignoring referendum results. They’re not wrong, of course: The Legislature shouldn’t just overturn citizen initiatives after the fact or ignore them. However, there’s reason to sincerely doubt their claim to be stalwart defenders of democracy.

After all, Democrats and Republicans alike have ignored the citizen initiative requiring that the state fund 55 percent of education costs for years. Moreover, the budget that eliminated Clean Election funding for gubernatorial candidates was not a partisan exercise but a bipartisan budget that was supported by two-thirds of the Legislature. If those examples aren’t recent enough for you, earlier in this very session Democrats had no problem going along with Republicans to rewrite the law on legalizing marijuana that passed last year. So this newfound respect from Democrats in Augusta for referendum results is welcome, to be sure, but it is so very sudden that it should not be believed.

No, clearly neither party has any problem ignoring, revising or completely rewriting citizen-initiated laws when it’s politically convenient for them. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. Instead, let’s demand that when the Legislature sees fit to meddle with citizen initiatives, it does so the right away. There are a number of ways for legislators who are concerned about citizen initiatives to fix them that respect the will of the people.

Contrary to popular belief, citizen initiatives aren’t just automatically sent directly to the ballot. They are instead referred first to the Legislature, which has the option to pass them as is or vote against them, sending them to the ballot. However, they also can craft a competing measure – make changes to the law instead of simply approving or rejecting it. If those changes are approved, then voters are presented with three options: the amended citizen initiative, the original as written, or they can reject both choices. If any option garners more than 50 percent of the votes, that’s that; if not, there’s a runoff to decide what becomes law.

The other option is to send any legislation modifying a citizen initiative out to referendum itself. This method isn’t often used, but the Legislature can always refer any legislation to the voters – and it’s what should be done with any major changes to laws originally passed by the people. That would give voters the chance to weigh in on the proposed changes, ensuring that they remain a part of the process.

The citizen initiative procedure was intended to give the people a greater voice. It wasn’t supposed to be a way for legislators to duck decisions on the issues. If certain aspects of a referendum are particularly controversial, legislators have every opportunity to make changes – before or after it appears on the ballot. Legislators in both parties should absolutely respect the decisions of voters, but that doesn’t ever preclude them from making responsible changes to the laws that result.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel