A few years ago, I was sitting in the departure lounge at BWI. I thought the rumbling I felt was caused by the construction equipment operating just outside the concourse. Moments later, as a few ceiling tiles started falling, I realized that I was experiencing my first earthquake. My confidence that I had virtually no views in common with liberals was similarly shaken last week when I found a Democrat legislator shared (some of) my views regarding November’s ballot initiatives.
In Maine, proponents of a referendum question need collect only a relatively small number of signatures determined by the number of people who voted in the previous gubernatorial election. There is no requirement that those who sign the petition in fact voted, are distributed across the state, or understand the proposed legislation. Four of the five ballot questions (excluding the bond question) passed and all four are flawed legislation.
Question 1, Marijuana “Legalization.” While legalizing use by people over 21, the 38 pages of language do not clearly make it illegal for minors to possess and use the drug.
Question 2, Income Tax Surcharge. While purportedly raising funds for education, the language does not assure those new revenues will go to education. The funds can be allocated by the Legislature as it chooses.
Question 4, Minimum Wage. The language eliminates the current “cutout” for tipped workers. Some supporters say this was deliberate, but restaurant owners and servers overwhelmingly say they didn’t need and don’t want the government “help.”
Question 5, Ranked Choice Voting. This law is, in the opinion of the attorney general, unconstitutional.
These deficiencies were publicized before Nov. 8, demonstrating that either people didn’t care or didn’t seek out the information. Now, the Legislature is faced with having to fix the deficiencies or leave flawed laws in place. My surprise was that the Democrat legislator agreed Questions 1 and 5 are seriously flawed and require that the Legislature act immediately.
Question 3 failed, and it too was deeply flawed. It was also, I maintain, purposefully crafted to require universal gun registration to make it enforceable and to provide a more activist administration with the mechanism to confiscate weapons and make felons of people for “offenses” like leaving your rifle in the car with a hunting companion while paying for gasoline. The claim that “nobody will ever do that” has all the credibility of “you can keep your plan.”
The ability of the people to petition the government to change, repeal, or pass new laws is fundamental to our concept of America. That acknowledged, there cannot be genuine dispute that Maine is a target of outside activists because it is so easy to bypass* the Legislature and place questions on a ballot. It’s not likely the requirements will change: the most recent attempt never got out of committee.
But that places a burden on the voters to invest the time and energy needed to educate themselves on what the legislation behind each ballot question says and whether there are unintended or undesirable effects of that language. Legislators spend days in committee hearing expert and sometimes emotional testimony before recommending to the full body whether a bill ought to pass or ought not to pass. In addition, they have support resources few citizens would take the time and effort to use. While it is a fact that most legislators probably have not read and surely have not thoroughly researched all the bills they vote on, they do have the informed and considered recommendations of their colleagues who have done so in committee and they also have the record of testimony and comment.
The language of proposed questions is available at maine.gov or by contacting your senator or representative. Proponents and opponents publish their arguments and hold meetings locally to present them. Legislators frequently have positions on questions and readily share their views. It is our responsibility to seek out this information and make an informed decision on ballot questions. To my surprise, the legislator did not dispute the observation that most voters do not investigate the details of ballot questions. That realization ought to send magnitude 7 tremors through our presumption that referendum results represent the will of the people!
*The Legislature does have the opportunity to act on proposals before they are placed on the ballot.
(Ken Frederic is a Maine native and alumnus of Brewer High School and the University of Maine at Orono. Before retirement, he worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense. He and his wife, Betty Ann, now live in Bristol and volunteer with several community organizations.)