In recent years, conservatives have become increasingly frustrated with the citizen initiative process here in Maine. That’s understandable, as a combination of local liberal activists and well-funded out-of-state special interests has increasingly been using citizen initiatives to bypass the Legislature entirely to pass left-wing policies. Often, these pieces of legislation aren’t very well-crafted, leaving legislators and the executive branch to figure out a way to actually fully implement them after they’re passed. Legislators are then put in the difficult position of trying to follow through on policies that many of them – in both parties – didn’t support in the first place.

The reaction by many conservatives has been to try to find ways to limit the number of referendums on the ballot. That’s an understandable reaction to an overproliferation of ballot measures, but in this case it’s the  wrong approach to take. While some of these ideas are reasonable – like L.D. 1209, the recent bill signed by Gov. Mills that requires that future referendums face a public hearing just like any other bill – others are clearly just attempts to stop future referendums. Placing limits on the process is not only unnecessary and flies in the face of Maine’s democratic traditions – it’s also unwise.

When Republicans had a majority in the Maine Senate and a conservative governor was in the Blaine House, limiting the citizen initiative process might have made some strategic sense. With Paul LePage in office, liberals frequently used citizen initiatives to circumvent him, taking their ideas directly to the people – so making it harder for them to do so was a logical approach. It was also short-sighted, however. The problem with limiting the power of the minority party (or, in this case, outside activists) is that it presumes that those roles will continue indefinitely. We know all too well that, both here in Maine and nationally, that’s a dangerous assumption to make.

We saw this at the national level when Harry Reid got rid of the filibuster for all nominations except to the Supreme Court. It certainly made eminent political sense at the time: Not only did it allow Barack Obama to get more nominees confirmed, it was a change that more liberal Senators and grassroots activists had long supported. While it might have been great for Democrats in the short run, when Republicans took back control of the Senate and, later, Donald Trump got elected, suddenly it didn’t look so wise. Not only did it allow Trump to get his nominees for lower positions easily confirmed, it gave Mitch McConnell all the precedent he needed to eventually get rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations as well.

Maine Republicans have actually been fortunate that their efforts to limit the citizen initiative process didn’t go anywhere. In the current political environment, they would be wise to mostly drop them. Just as Mills was willing to sign the bill requiring public hearings on citizen initiatives, Democrats might begin to warm to limiting them more broadly, now that they’ve taken full control in Augusta. Since they’re back in the majority, there’s no reason for them to need to do any more citizen initiatives – and limiting them will not only reign in their restless base, but help keep the opposition more tightly under control.

Rather than continuing to try to impose limits on citizen initiatives, Republicans should re-engage in the process. It’s easy to forget now, but almost 10 years ago the Republican Party succeeded in using the people’s veto to overturn John Baldacci’s tax reform plan, to the surprise of many. That campaign not only won but also awakened conservative grassroots activists who would help Republicans retake the majority in 2010.


Since then, Republican efforts to recapture that magic have largely faltered. Perhaps, with a strong ally in the Blaine House, conservatives felt confident and secure. It’s also much more difficult to muster enthusiasm about a ballot measure when your party is constantly dealing with its own internal divisions.

After a session of seeing what a largely unified Democratic Party does when they’re in the majority, now is the time to re-engage conservatives with a ballot measure. There are any number of potential topics that are ripe for the picking; it’s just important to make sure that the issue is unifying among Republicans and also has appeal to unenrolled voters. It’s an excellent way for the Republican Party to signal both to its conservative base and to independents that they’re ready to stand up and fight for what’s right.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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