Referendum questions shouldn’t get a free pass to the ballot

Business groups across the state are rightly concerned about a citizen initiative on the ballot this fall that would raise Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $12 per hour by 2020. So rather than merely oppose the measure, those groups are offering their own alternative: a smaller increase. Their proposal would go before the voters in November in the form of a competing measure, and it’s one that legislators should consider offering to voters.

When a campaign gathers enough signatures to qualify a citizen initiative for the ballot, the initiative doesn’t go directly to the voters. Instead, the Legislature takes it up first, and lawmakers have three options: vote against the bill, sending it directly to the voters; simply enact the bill as is; or amend it in committee and create a competing measure.

If lawmakers choose the last option, voters have more choices than just “yes” or “no.” They can decide between supporting the original initiative or the amended version, or they can opt to say no to both options. If neither measure attracted majority support (but as long as the leading measure received at least one-third support), there would be a separate election within 60 days asking voters whether they want to adopt the leading proposal on its own.

The Maine People's Alliance holds a news conference in Bangor in December advocating for its $12 minimum wage ballot measure. Contributed photo.

The Maine People’s Alliance holds a news conference in Bangor in December advocating for its $12 minimum wage ballot measure. Contributed photo.

By putting forward a more reasonable minimum wage alternative, business groups are attempting to engage in responsible governing, and the Legislature would be wise to take them up on it. Business leaders ought to be praised for being engaged in the legislative process and offering an alternative. They shouldn’t be attacked for having their own ideas. Criticizing this effort to offer more choices to voters is no different from party leaders attacking independent candidates for “stealing” votes from their candidates. It reeks of arrogance and desperation, and it shows that supporters of the minimum wage hike proposal are locked into a “my way or the highway” mentality.

Indeed, the Legislature should consider putting forth competing measures more often. Citizen initiatives frequently bring up important ideas that deserve to be addressed, but are not workable solutions as written. Rather than simply checking out of the citizen initiative process and sending them directly to voters without debate, as has been the norm of late, the Legislature should be fully engaged in the process.

There are several citizen initiatives going through the Legislature right now that could be considered candidates for competing measures. Lawmakers could off a competing measure implementing a statewide runoff system as an alternative to ranked-choice voting. The runoff measure, perhaps, avoids some of the constitutional concerns that have been raised regarding ranked-choice voting.

Rather than treating any other proposals as an attack on their idea, advocates for the minimum wage initiative should welcome the opportunity to engage in a debate on their proposal. If they’re confident in the virtues of their idea, they shouldn’t have any problem defending it before the Legislature as well as in a public campaign. This should be considered an ordinary part of the process for any citizen-initiated legislation, instead of being characterized as some sort of evil plot.

It was always intended that the Legislature would be a part of the citizen initiative process, not merely a stop along the way. If legislators believe they have a viable alternative to a citizen initiative, they absolutely should offer it as a competing measure. Citizen initiatives should be fully considered by a legislative committee, then debated on the floor of each chamber along with proposed amendments, just like any other legislation. Regardless of whether they support or oppose a particular initiative, legislators shouldn’t be afraid to debate it.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.