AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives on Monday defeated a bill that would have made it more difficult for Mainers to create new laws through ballot initiative.

The House voted 92-54 to approve the bill, but the margin was short of the two-thirds support required to advance it to the Senate. The proposal would have asked voters if they want to amend the Maine Constitution to require sponsors of ballot campaigns to obtain a percentage of voter signatures from each of Maine’s two congressional districts.

The vote on Monday marked the end of a bill that had orginally garnered bipartisan support. The bill received two-thirds support in initial votes in the House and Senate, a margin that would have sent the bill to voters for final ratification.

Maine voters are the final arbiters of all changes to the Constitution, but amendments first require support of two-thirds of the House and the Senate. The bill was approved 10-3 by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The proposal has steadily gained opposition since the initial votes. Opponents worried that the proposal, L.D. 742, would dramatically change the state’s referendum process. Lawmakers argued that the bill was an overreaction to last year’s bear-baiting referendum, a ballot question that has since inspired several changes to the referendum process.

Supporters of the bill countered that Mainers should only consider ballot initiatives that have demonstrated support statewide, not a specific region.

The bear-baiting initiative, financed almost entirely by the Humane Society of the United States, was defeated by voters, 53 percent to 46 percent. Voters in rural districts strongly opposed the referendum, often by lopsided margins. However, southern Maine voters were more supportive of the bear-hunting restrictions. In Portland, for example, voters favored the ban by 68 percent to 32 percent.

Data from the Secretary of State’s Office show that 75 percent of the more than 60,000 signatures collected for the 2014 bear referendum came from the more liberal 1st Congressional District. Of those collected in the 1st District, 46 percent came from Cumberland County.

Currently there are no requirements that signatures be obtained from specific geographic areas, and campaigns need only obtain a total number of signatures that equals at least 10 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Based on the election in November, referendum campaigns would need 61,123 signatures to get on the ballot.

The bill would require the number of signatures obtained by campaigns to be at least 10 percent of the total gubernatorial votes in the 1st Congressional District – southern and coastal Maine – and 10 percent of the total gubernatorial votes in the 2nd Congressional District – western, northern and Downeast Maine. That means future ballot initiatives would have required approximately 29,000 signatures from 2nd District and 32,000 from the 1st District, based on the turnout from last year’s gubernatorial election.

Maine is among the 24 states that allow citizens to petition the government to enact new laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states have tried to enact a geographical requirement to the signature-gathering process. In 2007, the Nevada Legislature passed such a requirement. The law was challenged in court by opponents who argued that it gave more influence to the voters in a congressional district where petitioners can’t obtain the 10 percent signature threshold.

However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that the law was legal.


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