Conservatives could use the citizen initiative to get things done

As the 128th Maine Legislature got underway last week, Gov. Paul LePage returned to a familiar topic: citizen initiatives. He reiterated to newly elected and returning legislators that he not only wanted to make changes to several laws recently passed at the ballot box, but that he wanted to re-examine the citizen initiative process as a whole.

With a closely divided legislature, it’s going to be difficult to make any major changes to the referendums that were just passed. After all, two of them — the education funding tax increase, Question 2, and the minimum wage hike, Question 4 — were strongly supported by most Democrats. They’re unlikely to be eager to work with LePage to curtail those referendums, as they’ll probably see any attempt to do so as partisan sour grapes.

There may be more hope for making changes to the other two referendums that passed: the legalization of recreational marijuana (which is the subject of a recount) and ranked-choice voting. Neither of these referendums enjoyed much support among establishment politicians in either party, so it could be easier to find some common ground to re-examine them. With both of these initiatives, state officials from both parties have identified serious concerns about implementing them. This isn’t unusual with referendums, which often have technical issues, since the people crafting them can’t rely on the same professionals that a legislator can in drafting a bill. Hopefully, legislators can work together in a bipartisan way to fix the flaws in a way that respects the will of the voters who enacted the initiatives.

What was unusual this year was the sheer number of referendums on the ballot, and the amount of money spent on the campaigns. That has led to concerns that, rather than serving as a tool for citizens to address issues that the Legislature is ignoring, referendums have become a way for special interest groups to get their way. It would be wise for the Legislature to consider constitutional ways to restrict the citizen initiative process to ensure it’s not abused in the future.

Volunteer Connie Gay during early voting last month at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Micky Bedell | BDN

Volunteer Connie Gay during early voting last month at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Micky Bedell | BDN

However, it would also be wise for conservatives in Maine to consider their relationship with the citizen initiative process. Although there was bipartisan support for most of them, this year’s bumper crop of referendums seemed to mainly come from the liberal perspective. Conservatives should begin to seriously examine how they can use the process as well.

In the past, conservatives have successfully used the people’s veto to overturn legislation, especially during the administration of Gov. John Baldacci. Unfortunately, when they’ve tried to pass citizen initiatives, they’ve been less successful. This may be because their focus has largely been on tax reduction, notably the failed attempts to pass a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Tax relief is certainly needed in Maine, but it’s going to be difficult to get it done at the ballot box.

Instead, conservatives should look to how liberals have successfully used citizen initiatives in recent years. They’ve used their established activists to get individual issues on the ballot that are popular, but have a tough time navigating the road through the State House. Conservatives could, if they wished, adopt this approach to get things done in this state.

There are any number of conservative reforms that Maine desperately needs that could be passed as referendums, but that would face a tough path to become law in Augusta — no matter which party happens to be in power. It’s high time we conservatives begin pushing for these reforms ourselves, rather than waiting around for Augusta to act. This would not only make Maine a better place to live, but it shows Mainers that conservatives have a substantive, positive agenda to offer the state.

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.