AUGUSTA – The fallout from last year’s bitter bear-baiting referendum trickled into the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Wednesday, as lawmakers took testimony on a bill restricting how signatures are gathered for ballot initiatives.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a pro-hunting group that played a leading role in opposing the referendum, drafted L.D. 176, which would make it harder for out-of-staters to participate in the signature gathering process to put a question on the ballot. The bill could affect future referendums, including another bear-baiting questions, because some campaigns depend on organizations that specialize in signature collection.

The Humane Society of the United States, a national group that bankrolled the bear-baiting campaign, opposes the bill. So does the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which argued that the proposal restricts the constitutional right to political speech.

Wayne Pacelle, the society’s CEO, would not specify in a phone interview Wednesday when the organization might attempt another referendum on bear hunting practices.

Maine is one of at least 20 states that allow its citizens to use ballot question process to change, repeal or enact laws. A provision in the Maine constitution requires that those who circulate petitions to gather signatures be Maine residents. However, over the years campaigns have used nonresidents to witness, and in some instances, play an active role, in the process, according to David Trahan, executive director of the sportsman’s group. Trahan said Wednesday that the humane society exploited the loophole in a “shady, if not illegal” way while gathering signatures in 2013.

Trahan provided examples of online ads showing that an independent contractor for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the political action committee that campaigned for the referendum, promised $75 a day to Maine residents to be witnesses to “expert” out-of-state petitioners. The ads implied that the out-of-staters would perform most of the work of gathering signatures.

Trahan and other advocates for the bill argued the practice violates the intent of the ballot initiative process, and that there’s no way for the state to determine that Maine residents are gathering signatures, as required.

The bill requires those who gathers signatures to wear a badge with their first and last names, the name of the organization employing them and to disclose their employment history to the state. Violation of those and other changes would become a Class E crime.

Similar initiatives 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. In that case the court ruled that the restrictions violated petition gatherers’ right to speak anonymously.

Oamshri Amarasignham, public policy attorney for the ACLU of Maine, cited the Colorado case in her testimony against the bill Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn agreed that the current proposal likely wouldn’t survive a constitutional challenge. Flynn said the bill’s advocates could attempt to define the duties of a signature gatherer in statute to help ensure that Mainers are actually doing the work.

Trahan told the Portland Press Herald Wednesday that he planned to amend the bill to address constitutional concerns. He said the sportsman’s group was working with attorneys for the National Rifle Association to draft the language. The NRA did not testify on the proposal, but it has notified its Maine members about the bill and urged them to support it.

While the passage of the proposal will likely hinge on the language amendment, several lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee expressed concern about the influence of out-of-state groups on Maine ballot questions. Some lawmakers peppered Katie Hansberry, the state director of the Maine chapter of the Human Society of the United States, with questions about PCI Consulting, a firm paid over $228,000 by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting to help get the initiative on the 2014 ballot. Hansberry defended the campaign’s use of PCI, saying the campaign had been forced to hire the company because the initiative had a late start and proponents wanted to get on the 2014 ballot. She added that it was ultimately Mainers’ decisions to sign the petitions.

PCI Consulting Inc. is located in Carlsbad, California and lists a number of corporate and political clients on its website. Among the political clients is the Humane Society of the United States, which hired PCI multiple times since 2005 for a variety of ballot initiatives in Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Missouri and California. Other clients include labor groups and campaigns advancing bills legalizing medical marijuana use.

Rep. Thomas Longstaff, D-Waterville, agreed that Mainers had a responsibility to know what they were signing. However, he questioned whether the signature gatherers were completely honest during their solicitations.

“That’s the problem that Maine people are worried about, that these paid people are deceiving them,” he said. “Yes, it’s their responsibility to know, but is there any responsibility of those asking them to sign to be up front about what they’re asking them to sign? That’s what troubles me.”

The Humane Society of the United States has sued the state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election and Practices for voting not to sanction the Maine’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for using state resources to oppose the referendum. According to a press release from the U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance, an Ohio group, the society’s attorney indicated in court that the group would attempt another referendum on bear hunting in 2016.

Pacelle, the society’s CEO, would not confirm that but said the group’s members believe that a third ballot initiative in Maine could succeed.

“We’re talking a serious look at Maine and there’s an emerging consensus that there’s support for a referendum that bans trapping and hounding,” he said. “We are still opposed to baiting bears, but what we heard on the ground is that people could support a ban on trapping and hounding.”


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