In 2001, a strange constellation of organizations testified together before the Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The Christian Civic League stood shoulder to shoulder with the AFL-CIO, the Maine Reform Party allied itself with the Toxics Action Council and the Taxpayers Network made common cause with the Forest Ecology Workshop.

Two things united these ideologically disparate groups. The first was a common philosophy: that grass-roots organizing, outside of the halls of the State House, was an essential tool for political change.

The second was a common threat: a set of bills supported by both Republican and Democratic legislators, as well as then-Gov. Angus King, an independent, attempting to drastically weaken Maine’s system of direct democracy through citizen-initiated referendums.

In the end, that unlikely coalition won. The proposals to increase the number of signatures required to launch a referendum, prohibit circulation of petitions on Election Day and other roadblocks to the ballot initiative process were all defeated.

Some Democrats and progressives may have regretted the scuttling of those bills over the next decade, as a number of conservative measures were put forward. These included four separate, unsuccessful proposals to cut taxes (which, if passed, would have had a devastating effect on state and local services) as well as successful people’s vetoes to deny health care funding and repeal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

Now, however, 15 years later, the tables seem to have turned, and the progressive groups who banded together with their conservative counterparts to protect Maine’s referendum system seem to have been vindicated.


Faced with years of an obstructionist governor, who often vetoes bills simply out of spite, and a divided Legislature that hasn’t been able to pass even some of the most common-sense proposals, progressive Mainers are reclaiming the ballot initiative as a tool to advance important and consequential policy proposals.

Five measures seem most likely to make the ballot this November:

Stand Up for Students is an initiative that would create a 3 percent wealth tax surcharge on income above $200,000 a year in order to raise $110 million in badly needed funding for local schools. It would finally fulfill the longstanding promise that the state would pick up 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education.

Ranked-choice voting is a democratic reform allowing voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference and then having their vote transfer to their next choices if their first fails to gain enough support. It would provide more choices, prevent divisive minority candidates from taking advantage of vote-splitting and likely lead to more positive, policy-focused campaigns.

The initiative to raise the minimum wage (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I work on) would gradually increase Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 in 2017 and then by a dollar a year more until it reaches $12 in 2020, directly boosting the wages of 130,000 Mainers. It would then increase with the cost of living. The sub-minimum wage for workers who receive tips would also be gradually phased out over a longer time frame.

The gun background check initiative would require criminal background checks for all gun transfers, including online, at gun shows or through classified ads, with certain exceptions for family members, use while hunting and in cases of self-defense.


The proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use would allow adults over the age of 21 to possess a limited amount of marijuana and use it in private. It would also set up a regulatory framework for stores and growers and institute a 10 percent tax on all marijuana sales.

An initiative on taxes and public assistance backed by Gov. LePage and the Republican Party did not submit signatures in time to make the 2016 ballot, and while a casino referendum did submit signatures in time, first reports indicate that not enough may be valid for it to be certified.

In short, Mainers will likely be asked to vote on a range of progressive initiatives to dramatically reshape our state’s approach to important issues of drug policy, wages and poverty, taxes on the wealthy, education funding, firearms regulation and democratic reform. Maine voters have never before had an opportunity to vote “yes” on so many progressive measures in one election.

From what public polling is available on these initiatives, they all appear to be very popular, most with support in the range of 60 to 70 percent of likely voters. Without their path to the ballot having been safeguarded 15 years ago, however, common-sense proposals like these may never have seen the light of day.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: @miketipping

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