Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

Although you wouldn’t know it from the news media’s fixation on Gov. Paul LePage’s every move — including his failed attempt to get his income tax elimination plan on the ballot — the referendum questions voters actually will consider this November represent a remarkable contrast to just about everything the Legislature has been doing over the last six years.

The advent of LePage marked the retreat of Democrats from anything resembling a progressive agenda, capped by their support of two major tax cuts, in 2011 and 2015, that fulfilled a long-time Republican dream — reducing the state income tax top rate paid by the wealthiest taxpayers, from 8.5 percent to 7.15 percent.

Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, gave the game away in 1981 when he told a reporter the entire Reagan income tax rollback was really a “Trojan Horse” for bringing down the top rate. Examine any Republican plan since then, including those of the dozen current presidential aspirants, and you’ll see the same pattern.

So it’s startling to see that one question that will appear in November would, to fulfill the state’s never-reached goal of 55 percent education funding, raise Maine’s top rate to 10.15 percent.

And in contrast to the Legislature’s failure to even get a minimum wage bill to LePage’s desk last year — it remains at the $7.50 an hour level lawmakers approved in 2006 — another question would raise the rate to $9 in 2017, and then to $12 in yearly increments through 2020.

Nothing is certain in referendum politics, but both propositions — higher taxes on the rich, and a better wage for everyone who works — are overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum, enjoying majority support from Democrat s , Republicans and Independents.

And so on down the list. After the massacre of second graders at Newtown, Conneticut in December 2012, Sen. Angus King, newly arrived in Washington, was astonished when the Senate failed to advance a bill mandating background checks for all firearms sales — thanks to the opposition of supposed moderates like Kelly Ayotte in neighboring New Hampshire. Polls show 90 percent of the public supports such checks.

In Maine, a then-Democratic Legislature did nothing about background checks, but last year lawmakers abolished the concealed weapons law — a prime goal of the National Rifle Association. A background check law will be on the ballot in November.

Finally, Maine will have the opportunity to become the fifth state to legalize marijuana for adults over 21. Maine has a long tradition of tolerance for marijuana use. Future Republican Gov. John McKernan, as a young legislator, sponsored the bill that decriminalized possession of small amounts. In 1999 voters enacted one of the first medical marijuana statutes, though the initiated bill proved unworkable, and required another referendum, in 2009, for the first dispensaries to open.

The Legislature has had several marijuana legalization bills before it, and has done nothing.

Referendums are far from an ideal way of legislating. They can be a way of blocking complicated or controversial laws that may be hard to explain in the sound bites that tend to dominate campaigns.

Gov. John Baldacci was particularly unfortunate with referendums during his two terms. In his very first year, he was confronted with a referendum from the Maine Municipal Association to increase school funding to 55 percent — but with no funding source. MMA claimed it was up to the Legislature to find the money, but the millions of dollars required does not exactly grow on trees.

The current referendum, brought forward by the Maine Education Association, may finally supply the funding, from the top 2 percent of taxpayers, that’s been so elusive over the past 10 years.

Baldacci, who never proposed a tax increase, was nonetheless harassed with two anti-tax referendums, both easily defeated, from the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His school consolidation law was challenged. The “sin taxes” the Legislature proposed to fund the Dirigo Health insurance program went down in a people’s veto. Ditto the Democratic Legislature’s “comprehensive tax reform” to raise sales taxes and lower income taxes.

What makes 2016 different? Instead of rejecting legislation, passed wisely or unwisely, by the Legislature, these four questions strikingly outline what the public might very well have wanted lawmakers to do. And when the Legislature fails to act, it may be that the voters must.

The 2016 referendum slate is poles apart from anything Paul LePage would ever propose, and far different from what Democratic legislators are willing to do. This year’s candidates would do well to sound out their constituents and decide whether, in 2017, they should take a new direction.

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Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]


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