Democrats in the Maine House yet again showed an unwillingness to do their basic duty as legislators when they recently voted against even allowing a committee hearing on L.D. 1864, a ballot question that would expand home health care. Like the secret, back-room negotiations that we’ve seen produce last-minute budget deals over the past several years, this should have been considered a shocking departure from legislative norms, but unfortunately it’s been all too common of late. Instead of legislators actually doing their jobs and giving citizen initiatives the through examination they deserve, recently they’ve just been voting down these referendums and sending them directly to the ballot.

When supporters of a citizen initiative get enough signatures to qualify an issue for the ballot, that ought to be just the first step – not the last. Theoretically, the Legislature has a chance to weigh in on a referendum first, and they have three options: Pass it as is; reject it and send it to the voters; or craft a competing measure to place alongside it on the ballot. Recently, legislators have simply voted down referendums, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do their due diligence first and at least fully study it they way they would any other legislation up before them.

To see an example of that having a positive effect, one needs only to look back to the last election cycle, when the York County casino referendum was up for a vote. Then, the backers of the failed project faced tough questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – which, along with a state Ethics Commission investigation, ultimately helped to expose the proponents’ shady behind-the-scenes manipulations. Those hearings provided voters all over the state with valuable information that helped them ultimately make the right decision to reject that flawed proposal.

There’s every reason to think that the public hearing format could be utilized in a similarly effective way to examine other pending referendums. That’s not to imply that all citizen initiatives are bankrolled by scurrilous developers looking to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers, but they all deserve the same detailed scrutiny that the casino proposal received. In a public hearing format before a legislative committee filled with members of both parties familiar with the topic, proponents and opponents alike could have the chance to make their case in a format that’s far better suited to policymaking than 30-second commercials are. There’s no reason for anyone – whether they support a referendum or not – to be afraid of a public hearing. Why, then, were Democrats so committed to blocking one on this ballot question?

It’s possible that they want to run a campaign that’s focused on expanding home care, without much discussing the tax hike that’s supposed to pay for the proposal. That increase would come in the form of a new 3.8 percent surcharge on income above the maximum income subject to Social Security employment taxes (currently $128,400). A public hearing would have given the chance for those who’d be affected by that tax hike to come to Augusta and testify against it, explaining how it would affect them, their businesses and their employees. Of course proponents don’t want to hear from them – it’s much easier to simply build the campaign around a tax hike for the rich, just like it was easier not to explain how they’d pay for Medicaid expansion.

In many ways, citizen initiatives are in fact becoming a way for outside special interest groups and wealthy individuals to manipulate our democracy. This was transparently obvious with the York County casino, but it was also true of the universal background check referendum, bankrolled largely by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That’s the case again here, as this campaign is being funded in part by a nonprofit controlled by billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros. During a public hearing, all of this information could be brought to light in a more neutral setting.

Avoiding a public hearing and just sending the issue out to a vote allows legislators to essentially duck this issue entirely if they so choose. Indeed, one wonders whether these referendums are launched because legislators have failed to act, as proponents often proclaim, or just to give the right candidates political cover. The Republican-controlled Senate wisely disagreed, but unfortunately it was all for naught – the House stubbornly refused to hold the hearing. In doing so, they’ve left us all less informed as citizens as we head to the polls to vote on this critical issue.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: @jimfossel