AUGUSTA — Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has told the Maine Republican Party that its proposed referendum to cut the income tax and make changes in the welfare system should be split into separate ballot questions.

If the party declines, Dunlap may try to divide the issues himself next year.

Dunlap’s advice, detailed in a letter to Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett, further complicates the party’s unusual move to pursue a referendum campaign instead of dedicating its resources to getting Republicans elected to the Legislature in 2016. Depending on how long it takes the state to finish its procedural reviews, the party also could miss the chance to collect signatures on Election Day.

There is one bright spot for the party: Dunlap has indicated that the two questions can fall under one petition, meaning Republicans will have to gather signatures for just one petition even if the question is split. The signature threshold to put a question to voters is currently just over 61,000. The signatures must be submitted to the secretary of state by the end of January to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

“The law does contemplate and even stipulate that the issues should be separate because the issues are severable,” said Dunlap, a Democrat. “There may be people who feel strongly in different ways about the two elements, welfare reform and tax reform.”

Bennett said the party won’t accept Dunlap’s recommendation and could contest any attempts to divide the referendum into two questions after the Legislature vets the proposal.

“This measure is designed to be a far-reaching, game-changing reform for the people of Maine and to turn our state into a state of opportunity and prosperity,” Bennett said. “The various elements within this (referendum) work in tandem to do that.”

Bennett also asserted that the law doesn’t allow the state to block the intent of the petitioner.

“Well, I’m the petitioner and my intent is that the (two issues) go out together,” he said.

In some states, citizen-initiated referendums must be single-issue ballot questions. Maine law allows separate issues to be combined in one ballot question, but empowers the secretary of state to determine whether the issues are so distinctly different that voters should be allowed to make separate decisions.

Dunlap cannot act until after the Legislature reconvenes and votes on the initiative. The measure is expected to fail in the Legislature, which is divided by a Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. However, lawmakers also could try to divide the referendum into two questions.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, suspects that Republicans bundled the two initiatives because they’ll have a better chance at the ballot box.

“It’s an issue that benefits Republicans and puts Democrats on the defensive really unlike any other issue,” he said.

However, Brewer said that ratifying the tax proposal will be a “tougher slog” because opponents of major tax changes have successfully won over Maine voters in the past.

“Democrats have been able to point out to Mainers the services that they’ll lose if you have these kind of tax cuts,” Brewer said. “You can already see the Democrats making the argument of ‘How are you going to pay for this?’ That (answer) is left open-ended.”

He added, “I think that’s probably one of the reasons Republicans wanted (the two issues) tied together. They were probably hoping that the enthusiasm and high level of support that I expect they will get for the welfare question will carry some of the water that’s needed in the tax one.”

Dunlap also had to determine whether to require two signature-gathering efforts, one for each question. Doing so would have created an additional barrier for Republicans to put the issues on the ballot because it would have doubled the number of signatures needed.

“We see nothing in the law or the Constitution that stipulates that this should be separate petition efforts,” Dunlap said. “But it can be presented to the voters separately” on the ballot.

Republicans face a challenge in getting their initiative on the ballot next year. In addition to clearing the ballot question language with the Maine Revisor of Statutes, the party also must await a fiscal impact note from the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office.

By law, the office has 15 days to draft the fiscal note, which estimates the cost of a ballot question. Even if the ballot questions clear the revisor and fiscal process without a hitch, the party may not be able to begin circulating its petitions by Election Day, Nov. 3.

That is often a key day for the party and activists to collect signatures. In 2014, a campaign working to install ranked-choice voting in Maine obtained over 36,000 signatures on Election Day, more than half of what it needed to get on the 2016 ballot.

If the Maine Republican Party misses Election Day, it will be forced to conduct its signature-gathering during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays, a difficult proposition for unpaid volunteers.

Bennett acknowledged that missing Election Day for gathering signatures would constitute a setback. However, he was confident that the procedural hurdles will be cleared in time.

Although Bennett has previously said the referendum drive will be a volunteer effort, he said last week that the party had not ruled out the use of paid signature-gatherers.

“We’re blessed with a lot of great activists who are chomping at the bit to take this to Maine voters,” he said. “We’re going to rely on that enthusiasm.”

He added, “We’re going to get this on the ballot no matter what.”

The first part of the proposed 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.

The proposal closely mirrors LePage’s key policy objectives. In September, the Press Herald reported that several members of his administration, including staff in his office and the Department of Health and Human Services, drafted the proposed language and provided it to the Republican Party.

Democrats have widely panned the referendum as a stunt that will further vilify the poor, and said that lowering the income tax will result in big cuts to education funding or increases in other taxes and fees.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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