AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are considering a bill to tighten regulations on those who gather voters’ signatures under the state’s citizen initiative process, including more disclosure of where their funding is coming from.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, among other things would require those giving more than $100,000 to a ballot question committee to disclose their top five donors. The measure, which was heard before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday, would also require petitioners to disclose if they were being paid and prohibit a notary public who is working with a campaign from notarizing voter signatures before they are turned in.

Supporters of the bill say it would bring more transparency to a ballot-question process that, in their view, has been hijacked by well-heeled, special-interest groups from outside of Maine as a way of getting their policy preferences enacted.

“Because these measures can go straight to the ballot, these disclosures will provide critical information to Maine voters,” Luchini said. He noted that the committee had dealt extensively with a campaign in 2017, financed largely by international gambling entrepreneur Shawn Scott, to bring a casino to York County.

Scott, his sister Lisa Scott and various business partners spent over $10 million on the failed effort, but the source of those funds was not always clearly defined and the various ballot question and political action committees behind the effort are facing record-level fines of $500,000 for violations of state finance disclosure laws.

“There was a lot of attempts to disguise the true source of that money,” said Luchini, the House chairman of the committee. “What this bill is trying to do is get at that situation where you can prevent dark money from flowing in and being hidden by those who wish to put a law on the ballot.”

Since 2016, voters have been asked to decide seven different ballot questions, including the York County casino, background checks for private gun sales, raising Maine’s minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and tacking a 3 percent surcharge on household income over $200,000 to help fund public education. Some of the measures were approved, some were rejected and some were altered after the fact by the Legislature.

Opponents of the bill included the left-leaning nonprofit Maine People’s Alliance. It has successfully backed four ballot initiatives in the last five years, including the minimum wage hike and the expansion of Medicaid.

Taryn Hallweaver, the legislative director for the MPA, said there were a number of legal, technical and practical issues with the bill. Hallweaver said requiring petitioners who gather signatures to disclose whether they were being paid to do so may be in violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

“The deputy secretary of state has already weighed in on this that there are constitutionality issues with this,” she said.

Hallweaver also said MPA used “unionized salaried canvass members,” many of whom lived in Maine or grew up in Maine, and that the canvassers and volunteers were trained to explain issues thoroughly to those who were signing petitions.

But others, including Peter Gore, the vice president of government relations for the Maine Chamber of Commerce, said many petitioners were professionals who were brought to Maine by a campaign to work for the money and not for the cause. He said the bill would add transparency to Maine’s ballot question process.

“We believe it will help Maine people understand who is behind these efforts and decide for themselves whether those promoting their passage represents a true grassroots effort or outside well-funded special interests who may put their policy goals above the ordinary Maine person,” Gore said. “And ordinary Maine people are not always those gathering signatures or working on the question.”

Gore accused the MPA of hiring people from Las Vegas to gather signatures for a ballot question in November on taxing high-wage earners to raise $310 million to fund home health services for Maine’s elderly and disabled. That effort was largely bankrolled with a $350,000 infusion of cash from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change Action and the Open Society Policy Center, also based in D.C., a nonprofit funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Hallweaver denied that the MPA hired people from Las Vegas to work on the campaign.

“We don’t really condone that practice,” she said.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said the ballot measure process was there as an outlet for citizens to move popular policies forward when the Legislature was unable to do so because of political gridlock.

But questions over who is truly funding ballot question efforts in Maine should be answered for voters, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He supports Luchini’s effort.

“The reason this is unfair to Maine residents is small special interests based in Maine can pull money from all 49 states and thousands of like-minded state and national groups and then buy our media outlets,” Trahan said. “Small groups of citizens in the state are then tasked with raising money from a relatively small in-state population.”

The committee will hold a future work session on the bill before voting on whether to recommend it for approval by the full Legislature in the weeks ahead.

 

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