By the end of the 19th century, much of Maine had been sold to a small number of individuals and corporations.

The so-called “wild lands” had very low valuations on the tax rolls, but harvesting the timber resulted in huge profits for their owners.

Sitting at his desk at the Somerset Reporter in Skowhegan, editor Roland Patten thought the system was rigged. The landowners and railroads were too powerful to be checked by state government.

He became convinced that the answer was public ownership of utilities, and that the only way to overcome the power of the land barons was to get state law changed through the process of citizen initiative and referendum. So he began fighting to create a process for the people to be involved in direct democracy.

Patten’s idea has been part of Maine’s system of government for the last 108 years. The state never took ownership of the utilities, but Patten succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

In November, voters will be presented with five citizen-initiated referendum questions – as many questions as Maine voters answered in the half-century between 1920 and 1970. The number of ballot questions and what they address should tell us something important about the state of our politics: Like Patten, we are living in a society with serious problems and there is a growing sense that our government is not set up to deal with them.

Take a look at this year’s questions:

 Ranked-choice voting – a reform that would create instant runoffs in multi-candidate elections where no candidate gains a majority.

 Increasing the minimum wage to $12 over four years – a 60 percent increase.

 Universal background checks for private gun sales.

 A surtax on high incomes to raise money for education.

 Legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults.

Why weren’t these issues dealt with by the state government? Because it won’t. Anyone advocating a major change to state law has got to view representative democracy in its current state as a waste of time.

Former state Sen. Dick Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, thinks it’s a function of divided government.

In a panel discussion recapping the just-completed legislative session on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network last week, Woodbury said that most Mainers remember a government dominated by one party or another, but that has not been the case since 2012.

“When you have these divisions of power, it’s a really different dynamic. It’s not one party developing its agenda and passing its party agenda with the power it has,” he said. “It’s more of a situation where the parties have to work with each other or not and you either end up with gridlock – or, potentially, the most beneficial situation of all, the parties work together well and accomplish some things that are really important.”

The last four years, we’ve seen mostly gridlock, and all the big policy ideas like tax reform, Medicaid expansion and reform of the solar energy market have been killed or whittled down to almost nothing. As for this year’s referendum questions, Woodbury said, “Every single one of them is a bigger issue than anything that the Legislature accomplished in the last term.”

There are signs that we won’t see one-party government for a while. Control of the Legislature has become more volatile, with the Senate changing hands three times in the last six years and the House twice. Both houses could flip this year, leaving a Democratic Senate and Republican House instead of the other way around.

Gov. LePage still has another legislative session in his term, and he’s proven that he doesn’t even need another part – he can have gridlock with Republicans as easily as with Democrats. Meanwhile, getting questions on the ballot is far easier than moving a bill through the legislative process. especially if the backers are well financed.

The referendum process designed in the 20th century fits perfectly with the 21st-century aversion to compromise. These days politicians are called flip-floppers if they shift slightly to make a deal. That’s not a problem with a referendum. Since one side writes the question, the question is one-sided. The voters say “yes” or “no” – no amendments allowed.

There’s a lot of potential for mischief with the referendum process. Special interests can hire signature gatherers and make a sweetheart deal look like a grass-roots movement.

But if the state government can’t deliver on the big issues, the 2016 ballot will be nothing compared to what comes next.


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