AUGUSTA — Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to advance a joint order asking the state’s top court whether they can enact any of the four pending citizen referendum initiatives without sending them to voters.

The joint order requesting clarity from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court was cosponsored by nearly 120 lawmakers from both parties and chambers and breezed through the Senate without debate and awaits action in the House.

Lawmakers in both parties say there is widespread support among the public and legislators for a proposal to prohibit foreign governments from spending money on state referendum campaigns. They want to pass the bill without a long and costly referendum campaign.

But Gov. Janet Mills, who prompted the citizen petition effort when she vetoed a similar bill last year, issued a proclamation calling for referendum votes on four of the citizen initiatives submitted this year – a move that precludes legislative action on any of the proposals.

Mills, the secretary of state and the attorney general said they believe lawmakers missed their opportunity to act on the referendums before the regular legislative session was temporarily adjourned at the end of March. Democrats voted to adjourn to make sure a partial budget they passed would take effect on July 1. The Legislature then reconvened in a special session.

Lawmakers are asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to find there is a “solemn occasion” to issue an opinion and clarify whether the Legislature can still act on the referendum initiatives.


Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said “there are large issues at stake,” not only for the current Legislature and referendums, but for future legislatures and referendums. He said the statewide vote on initiatives is an important backstop in the event lawmakers do not act on a citizen petition, but lawmakers should be allowed to adopt those measures outright.

“I worry that some who are opposed to some of these measures that are now before us are now using the unique circumstances which we find ourselves in, being in special session, to frustrate this constitutional right that people have to petition us and to frustrate our right and our responsibility as a Legislature to act on these,” Bennett said. “We should not let that happen.”

Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said Wednesday that the governor issued the proclamations setting statewide votes on the referendums as a “ministerial action required by the Constitution, done in consultation with the relevant constitutional officers, without regard to the content of the proposals, and consistent with past practice.”

At issue is when the referendums are considered formally presented to the Legislature. That’s because the state Constitution appears to only allow lawmakers to pass a citizen initiative in the session in which it’s presented.

According to the joint order, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows sent the referendum initiatives to the revisor’s office to be drafted into legislative documents on Feb. 16 and March 22 during the first regular session.

However, those legislative documents were not drafted and delivered to the House clerk until April 10, which was during the current special session. Lawmakers contend that their joint rules don’t consider bills to be formally presented until they’re printed and delivered to the clerk.

Bennett described Mills’ position as a “strained reading of the constitution.”

It’s unclear when the court will take up the request.

Note: This story was updated May 5 to correct the status of the joint order in the House and the number of citizen referendums affected by the dispute. 

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