Maine’s experiment with direct democracy entered a new phase last week, when Gov. LePage signed the biennial budget.

The process by which voters can enact laws themselves without the help of elected officials has been part of the Maine Constitution for more than a century. It was a rarely used safety valve for most of its history, but in recent years it has become a go-to strategy for activists frustrated by the slow pace of the legislative process.

Last year there were a record five citizen-initiated questions on the ballot, and four of them were enacted into law by the voters. All were big policy initiatives – legalizing marijuana, taxing the rich to pay for schools, raising the minimum wage for hourly employees as well as those who work for tips, and introducing ranked-choice voting for elections that have more than two candidates. These were the kinds of reforms that had no chance of getting by a divided Legislature and a veto-happy governor.

But Election Night turned out to be the high point for the winners. The high-income surtax was repealed in full as part of the bipartisan budget. Tipped workers were exempted from the minimum-wage law. Implementation of the marijuana initiative was delayed. And ranked-choice voting is still on the books, but only because lawmakers couldn’t agree how completely they want to tear it apart.

Since the Legislature’s work this year is not quite done, we don’t know yet whether the election reform law might be wiped off the books entirely, like the surtax, or just surgically altered, like the minimum wage. It’s safe to say that the least likely option will be for the Legislature to follow the will of the majority of voters, and make sure the new system is in place before next year’s election.

There were a number of bills before the Legislature this year aimed at making it harder to put questions before the voters, and none of them passed. But the dismissive way lawmakers dealt with the questions that the voters did approve will have a much more profound effect than any of those bill could have.


Everyone who plays a part in the political system is going to have to figure out what this across-the-board rejection says about the value of future ballot initiatives.

Voters will have to wonder whether they are saying “yes” or “no” to a new law, or just submitting a bill for the Legislature to consider. Lawmakers will have to wonder if there is a political cost to ignoring the majority of the state’s voters, especially when their home district voters did not support a winning initiative.

Strategists will wonder if it’s worth spending on a public campaign when, even if successful, opponents can just kill the law later with a little strategic lobbying in the halls of the State House.

Some things should already be clear:

Not all questions take a yes-or-no answer. Although it was highly controversial during the campaign, the marijuana referendum was the least altered by the legislative process. Part of that is because it’s expected to bring in tax revenue that appropriators were happy to spend, but also because it was a simple question. Should marijuana be legal for adults, yes or no? If yes, then there are a number of policies that have to be adjusted. But reforming the two most complicated parts of state government – the tax code and school funding formula – may be too much of a mouthful for a one-word answer.

You need boots on the ground. Ranked-choice voting passed because a majority of voters felt the current election system doesn’t work. But then 186 people elected under that system got their hands on the law and there weren’t enough who agreed that the system that had put them in office was hopelessly flawed. Outside groups can get something on the ballot, but without allies inside the Legislature, it’s very hard to get the job done.

Change requires leadership. There is no substitute for a chief executive with vision who works with the legislative branch to make compromises that move the state toward a goal. That is not what we have had in Maine for the last six years. Gov. LePage’s refusal to compromise and the “do no harm” slogan for his last two years in office means Maine will not see any changes of the scope presented to the voters last year. The next occupant of the Blaine House will be able to look at the 2016 election results and see what people want, but until that new governor is in office, we can’t expect much to change.

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