A legislative committee heard testimony Monday on another proposed constitutional amendment to make it harder for campaigns to place referendum questions on the state ballot.

Lawmakers are considering at least four bills proposing changes to the Maine Constitution – pending voter approval – in response to the increasing attempts by citizen groups to secure policy victories at the ballot box. The bills come three months after Mainers legalized marijuana, increased the minimum wage and raised taxes on wealthier residents to funnel more money toward education – all controversial policy issues that had failed to pass the Legislature and were opposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Republican lawmakers and LePage have been calling for the reform of Maine’s referendum process. Supporters say the process provides citizens with a powerful policymaking tool for times when politicians or partisanship block an issue that has popular support.

The latest proposal, considered Monday by members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, would dramatically increase the number of signatures that citizen initiative or “people’s veto” campaigns need to qualify for the ballot.

Ballot question committees must gather signatures from the equivalent of 10 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. That currently equates to 61,123 signatures from registered voters. A proposal from Rep. Stedman Seavey, R-Kennebunkport, would both increase that threshold to 15 percent and apply it to the number of ballots cast in the previous presidential election, rather than the governor’s race.

Under those standards, campaigns would need 112,189 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot, an increase of 84 percent.

Seavey said he’s worried that the current requirement could lead to “competing constituencies” going back and forth every two years, passing and then overturning initiatives at the ballot box.

“I feel this process of signature-gathering should reflect the importance and responsibility of the citizens to directly make decisions that affect all citizens in Maine,” Seavey said. “I believe that asking 15 percent of Maine voters to sign onto a citizens initiative is a more appropriate barometer, considering the importance of this process.”

TOUGH CLIMB FOR AMENDMENTS

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee already has heard arguments for and against three proposals to change Maine’s initiative process, although none has come up for a vote in committee. One proposal would permanently exempt wildlife issues, such as hunting rules, from being decided at the ballot box. Another would require petitioners to meet the 10 percent signature threshold in Maine’s two congressional districts or in each of the state’s 35 state Senate districts, rather than allowing petitions to be circulated in a more limited number of like-minded communities. Another proposal that would require campaigns to hit a 15 percent threshold in each county has yet to have a public hearing.

Lawmakers also are considering other bills to require more disclosure about ballot initiatives, whether through public hearings or by printing the entire language of an initiative on the ballot.

All of the constitutional amendment proposals face a steep climb. First, any proposal must receive two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature. Then a majority of voters statewide must endorse the proposal.

Nationwide, progressive or liberal-leaning interest groups have increasingly turned to statewide ballot campaigns to pursue policy changes that they cannot win through legislation. In Maine, interest groups on all sides of the political aisle have used the state’s citizen initiative process with mixed success. But the 2016 ballot questions in Maine on marijuana, the minimum wage, gun control, tax hikes and ranked-choice voting were all pursued by liberal groups.

LePage, a Republican, has accused out-of-state liberal activist groups of trying to “hijack” the policymaking process and has warned lawmakers that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant amid the growth in citizen initiatives.

“We need to reform the referendum process and we need to return to a representative government,” LePage said during his Feb. 7 State of the State address.

In the meantime, LePage also has urged the Legislature to effectively overturn some of the laws passed at the ballot box, including the 3 percent income tax surcharge on high earners to help fund education.

EXTRA WORK FOR ELECTION OFFICIALS

The Secretary of State’s Office took no formal position on Seavey’s bill Monday, but it cautioned that the higher signature threshold would not just require more work for the campaigns.

“While we understand the purpose of this bill is to make sure that the process of placing a direct initiative on the ballot does not become too easy, it must be noted that increasing the number of signatures would also increase the workload, not only for the secretary of state but also for municipal elected officials,” said Melissa Packard, director of elections in Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. “Municipal officials must review petitions to determine if the signers of the petitions are registered to vote.”

Two citizen initiatives already have qualified for the 2017 ballot. One asks voters to allow a casino in York County, and the second seeks to force the LePage administration to expand Medicaid coverage as allowed under the Affordable Care Act.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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