Inside Augusta

Legislature did not thwart voters’ will with changes to referendum bills

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Perhaps the most inaccurate narrative being pushed by lobbyists and special-interest groups in Augusta is that the Maine Legislature is “thwarting the will of the voters” by amending or altering legislation passed through Maine’s citizen referendum process.

This outcry began after legislators from both parties made changes to some of the bills passed by voters at the ballot box. Some examples of the changes made by the Legislature include fixing an error in the bill legalizing recreational marijuana that allowed children to possess and use marijuana; increasing the money servers and bartenders can earn by reinstating the tip credit, which was repealed as part of the minimum increase approved by voters.

At issue here is the fact that what the voters passed at the ballot box was not just a simple yes-or-no question, it was an actual piece of legislation similar to what we pass here at the Maine Statehouse. The difference being that what is passed at the ballot box oftentimes has not been vetted at all.

Bills that I and other legislators vote on receive extensive public hearings and work sessions in their respective committees of jurisdiction and are debated ad nauseam. The committee process allows us to dig deeper into a bill’s cost to taxpayers, as well as unintended consequences of a particular piece of legislation, or catch and fix drafting errors in a bill.

The bills behind referendum questions typically get none of this additional scrutiny but, like all bills passed by the Maine Legislature, they are still subject to the same checks and balances.

When I was campaigning, I knocked on thousands of doors with the same message. I promised my constituents that I would be a responsible steward of their tax dollars, and I meant it. As a legislator, I swore an oath to uphold the Maine Constitution and the Unites States Constitution. Those of us who are elected by our constituents have a duty and a responsibility to make sure that all public policy is at the very least constitutional. And in the case of the referendum to implement ranked-choice voting in Maine, it was declared unconstitutional by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, yet still managed to wind up on the ballot. If a state representative or a state senator were to introduce a bill that was blatantly unconstitutional, it would never have made it through the process.

There is also a question about whether raising or creating taxes at the ballot box is even constitutional. We continue to see ballot questions that seek to impose new taxes on the Maine people and small businesses. But the Maine Constitution clearly states: “…all bills for raising a revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” not at the ballot box.

I have serious concerns about any taxes being created, implemented or raised through referendum. When it comes to taxation and appropriating your tax dollars, I believe that responsibility belongs with the Legislature, where each expenditure can be viewed within the context of the entire state budget and weighed against other priorities. Medicaid expansion passed at the ballot box after failing in the Legislature multiple times. The main reason it didn’t pass is simply the fact that there was no way to pay for it. That’s a fact that is hitting home with Democrats in the Legislature, who have still not yet come forward with a plan to come up with the roughly $100 million each year it will take to implement this policy.

It’s mind-boggling to me that an unconstitutional bill would even make it to the ballot. Legislation was recently introduced by my colleague in the Legislature Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, that would require all ballot initiatives to pass constitutional muster. But sadly, Democrats killed the proposal. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette introduced a bill that would prohibit the creation, raising or implementation of any new tax through the referendum process, and that was also killed by legislative Democrats.

The fact that our well intentioned citizen initiative process is being hijacked by wealthy special interest groups is a major problem and one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Maine can no longer afford to be a cheap date for those who temporarily pitch their tents here in order to buy bad public policy.

If we continue to reduce our law-making down to a one-sentence question and a few million dollars’ worth of deceptive advertising, we are going to be in serious trouble as a state.

 

This article was reprinted from The Courier Gazette.

About Paula Sutton

State Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, represents House District 95.

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