Making a new law in Maine is not easy. From the original concept to the final statute, the path of legislation is long and arduous.
The proposed law first has to be written so it makes sense; next it’s sent to a legislative committee where public hearings are held, then discussions among committee members and possible amendments; then it is sent to the full House and Senate; and after all that – if the House and Senate can agree – it is sent to the governor for his or her signature. This usually takes months, sometimes years.
There is, however, a quicker and easier route. It’s called a referendum and all you need is money to get your law passed.
The “citizens’ referendum” is a way to bypass the entire legislative process and create a new and often controversial law without vetting, without discussion, and without approval of our elected lawmakers themselves.
The referendum is also used by those who want a law that has been rejected by the Legislature. The casino gambling referendums are a good example of this. Casinos were rejected by the legislature for years. That didn’t stop the proponents who then tried referendums – and they were rejected by the people – three times. But those who would benefit from the casinos had enough money to keep collecting signatures, keep lobbying, and keep advertising, and they eventually succeeded with barely over 50 percent of the popular vote. The expensive campaign finally paid off for the big casino investors.
This election year, the Maine people are faced with five referendum questions. Proponents all chose to skirt the legislative process and understandably so – they are all controversial ideas with far-reaching and possibly disastrous consequences.
The first question would legalize recreational use of marijuana. With drug addiction in Maine at epidemic levels, voters needs to ask – how will this affect our young people? Who exactly is going to benefit?
The second creates a heavy new tax and promises to direct it toward education. Again, serious questions remain – is this what Maine’s economy needs? And how do we know the revenue will go toward education? If we still aren’t getting 55 percent of the cost of education paid for as demanded by the people through referendum years ago, how will this new tax help?
Number three would impose strict new gun regulations – even though Maine is one of the safest states in the country. Does Maine really need new and onerous gun restrictions that haven’t worked in other states? Who is behind this effort? Do they understand the Maine laws that are already in place? Why are these out-of-state organizations dumping so much money into this effort?
The fourth would dramatically increase the minimum wage. How will this forced raise to mostly young and part-time workers affect our economy? And will it really help those it proposes to if it, in all likelihood, increases unemployment? How will it affect those living on fixed incomes?
The fifth question would fundamentally change the way we vote. We would be the first state in the country to enact statewide ranked-choice voting. First, would it be constitutional? But also, what are the safeguards against voter fraud?
These questions and many more would be asked during the normal legislative process. All sides would weigh in so a well-thought-out decision could be reached. Instead, in referendums, loose, over-simplified language is foisted on an unsuspecting public who is then bombarded with deceptive advertising.
These five questions are on the ballot because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pass in your Legislature and proponents had enough money to put them on the ballot directly. It is now up to you, Maine voter, to do the vetting, the research, and ultimately the deciding. You are the lawmaker. And should any of these referendums pass, you are the only ones who can repeal them, as woe be it to the elected official who tries to repeal a law enacted by the people!
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend while in a local coffee shop. I asked her how she was voting on the referendum questions. She said she only knew of one of them, the one on gun control, and she was confused about it. I told her there were four other questions plus a bond issue. She said she would read them in the voting booth and make up her mind then.
None of these five referendums should be allowed to pass. I say that not just because I believe all might do more harm than good, but because continuously bypassing the legislative process sets a dangerous precedent. Should these pass, we can only expect more weakly drafted, un-researched, partisan, and risky laws to come before us in the next and future elections simply because the proponent has enough money to do so.
(Jonathan McKane represented Bristol, Damariscotta, Edgecomb, Monhegan, Newcastle, and South Bristol in the Maine House of Representatives for four consecutive terms, from 2005-2013. He lives in Newcastle.)