Maine lawmakers are overhauling or set to repeal each of the four citizen-initiated laws that passed in November. Those actions have left some wondering if the voice of the voters is as sacrosanct as it once was.
It also reveals the tension between activists and voters frustrated with the pace of change and elected officials who believe the citizen initiative has undercut their role as lawmakers.
“The effort to repeal ranked choice voting is a slap in your face from politicians who think they know better than you. It’s time to tell the politicians in Augusta that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” says Kyle Bailey to his fellow ranked-choice voting supporters at a rally in front of the State House last month.
Bailey was campaign manager for the successful Ranked Choice Voting Committee and while this group is obviously mad as hell, they’re not alone.
Last month, the Maine Supreme Court found that a key part of the ranked choice voting law is unconstitutional. The Legislature could send a constitutional amendment to voters to fix that problem, but there doesn’t appear to be enough support from lawmakers to do that.
The same uncertainty confronts the voter-approved 3 percent surcharge on earnings over $200,000 as a way to increase public education funding.
That’s led to floor speeches like this one from Saco Democratic Sen. Justin Chenette who last week tried to amend a Republican budget proposal to save the surcharge from repeal.
“It tells the people of Maine that their voices matter, that the Legislature will not treat the outcome of a fair and free election as a mere suggestion, but will respect it as a powerful expression as democracy as it should be.” says Chenette from the Senate floor. “What does it mean for a democracy when a small group of politicians — government — can simply cherry-pick which election mandates they implement, or all out ignore election results entirely.”
Chenette’s amendment failed, killed by the Republican controlled Senate. Meanwhile, Democrats have expressed a willingness to reduce the surcharge, or jack up the income threshold in order to pass a two-year budget and avoid a government shutdown.
In fact, lawmakers are tinkering with all of the voter-approved laws from last year, including Question 1 — which legalized recreational marijuana — and Question 4 — which raised the minimum wage.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap offered a blunt assessment.
“Right now all of them are in flux,” he says. “The minimum wage has already been amended heavily and they’re not done with that. The marijuana initiative is mired in committee. The surtax has its head on a chopping block in budget negotiations and ranked choice voting is walkin’ around with a bloody nose.”
He is equally blunt in his response to suggestions that lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage are — “ignoring the will of the voters.”
“You have 186 individual legislators who all got elected on their own values,” Dunlap says. “You have a chief executive who was elected on his own values. You have appointed members of the Maine Supreme Court who bring their own experiences to it. And it all mixes together. And the reality is you don’t check your values at the door because you’ve been elected to a position and now there’s initiative passed by voters.”
He says the push-pull relationship between lawmakers and the direct initiative is nothing new.
There were multiple efforts to protect sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act before it became law. Voters rejected many of them.
The will of the voters, he says, is part of the conversation, not the end of it.
But there are other factors playing into the current Legislature’s willingness to alter or repeal citizen initiatives.
“There’s an aspect of this where people are respecting more their narrow constituencies in their home districts, not necessarily so much the winning majority statewide,” says Ann Luther, she is with the Maine chapter of the League of Women Voters, a group that backed the ranked choice initiative last year.
She says some lawmakers seem resentful that activist groups convinced voters to circumvent the legislature to enact new policies. Others don’t like that amending or fixing the initiatives has consumed so much time this session and contributed to the ongoing budget stalemate.
Luther also says some lawmakers think voters are easily deceived by expensive and sophisticated campaign messaging. Over a dozen outside groups contributed over $14 million to last year's record five ballot campaigns -- and much of that funding was opaque and difficult to track.
Some lawmakers have latched onto the spending as proof that the ballot initiative process has been hijacked by outside interests.
Luther says some lawmakers simply aren't fans of the direct initiative process.
“Some of them feel, We were elected, we have the process, we have the expertise, we ought to be allowed to make law. The voters, when they get involved, just muck it up and make more work for us. So get the voters out of it and leave it to us to do the job,” she says.
But it’s also true that activists and voters don’t believe lawmakers are doing their job.
“All of these questions were before the Legislature and the Legislature could not get the job done,” says Luther. “So it’s a safety valve for voters, too.”
But now lawmakers also want to tighten the safety valve — to make it harder for citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot. Luther says the move to make it harder to get on the ballot could have a perverse effect: Instead of restoring the intent of the citizen initiative, it could make it harder for citizens to enact laws, leaving only professional, well-funded campaigns to take advantage of the citizen initiative process.
A similar bill failed just session. But that was before the November election that made this Legislature’s job much more difficult.