When ballot initiatives grow government for no reason

The ballot questions before voters this fall touch on many different facets of our lives. Unfortunately, most propose to increase — rather than roll back — government involvement in our lives, limiting our individual rights as citizens.

It isn’t just this year, either, with citizen initiatives that propose to raise taxes, increase wage controls, change our election system, and attack our second amendment rights. It’s been a trend in recent years, as we’ve seen attempts to ban certain kinds of hunting, boost funding for taxpayer-financed campaigns, and legalize monopolies on gambling.

In many cases, these are proposals that never gained any traction as ordinary legislation, but it wasn’t because the Legislature was stuck in gridlock and unable to get anything done. Rather, it was because the people whom we elect to represent us considered these proposals carefully and rejected them, often in a bipartisan fashion. That’s not reflective of inaction, but of our lawmakers doing exactly the job we elected them to do: governing. Sometimes governing is passing new legislation, but it’s just as often about making sure that bad legislation doesn’t pass.

Of course, that governing often goes against the grain of what certain special interests want. In that case, those very interests may find it cheaper to buy just one election — a ballot initiative — rather than spend more money and time to get legislators elected who will pass the laws they favor. It’s a lot easier to find some lawyers to write legislation for you, hire a company to gather signatures for you, and run a campaign, than to make a multi-year investment in the state’s electoral process.

Some special interests, particularly those with national reach, may also be less willing to get truly involved in Maine politics because they don’t really care about making this state a better place. They care more about getting a victory notch in their belt for their cause.

George Danby | BDN

George Danby | BDN

All of this explains why so many of the citizen initiatives on the ballot this year would expand government, rather than limit it. Fortunately, our legislators are often loath to expand government, especially to address problems that don’t exist in our state. Every time a new program is created, it costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere — either from tax increases or spending reductions elsewhere in the budget. Citizen initiatives also always run the risk of producing major unintended consequences.

Legislators know this, and it’s something they carefully consider as part of the legislative process — but it’s not something that can be easily boiled down into a 30-second TV ad.

It’s not the approach pushed by those campaigning for ballot initiatives, but it’s the one all of us should use as we consider the referendum questions on the November ballot.

In any campaign, it’s all too easy to transform complex public policy issues into emotional arguments, and that’s especially pernicious in referendum campaigns. That’s why it’s important that we all take these decisions seriously as we stand in the voting booth. We all ought to ask not just if a referendum is a good idea, but how it made it to the ballot, who helped get it there, and whether those entities truly care about making our state a better place.

When national special interest groups pour millions into referendum campaigns, it undermines much of what makes Maine unique. We don’t need big-government solutions from away to solve imaginary problems, and we don’t need special interests groups buying legislation. It’s good that Maine has the citizen initiative process, but we shouldn’t allow it to be abused to limit our freedom.

If a referendum this fall doesn’t seem to solve a problem but does grow government, just vote no.

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.