An important bill offering ballot initiative reform was voted down in the Senate on Thursday after Senate Democrats blocked the measure, helping fellow Democrat Sen. Ben Chipman, of Portland, continue lining his pockets in Southern Maine.
The bill, LD 31, would require petitioners gather signatures in both of Maine’s congressional districts. The number of signatures collected in each district cannot be less than 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. After failing in the Senate, the bill went back to the House where it passed 107-25.
Currently, organizing groups need only the required 61,123 verified signatures to move an initiative onto the ballot, and those signatures can be acquired from anywhere in the state.
Traditionally, organizations have steered clear of central and northern Maine, gathering signatures in southern areas of the state where there are more people, who also skew liberal on the political spectrum.
However, this has led to an influx of ballot initiatives in recent years, many of which are lofty, liberal measures that are so overreaching the legislature is forced to amend them.
All four of the prevailing ballot initiatives from the November election have been altered by the Maine Legislature or face legal scrutiny. The implementation of the marijuana referendum, or Question 1, was delayed, and the legislature established an implementation committee to ease public concerns surrounding legalized recreational marijuana. The 3 percent surtax on high-income earners from Question 2 was removed in the biennial budget agreement. Question 4, which raised Maine’s minimum wage across all sectors of the economy, was minimized when the Restaurant Workers of Maine successfully fought to reinstate Maine’s tip credit. Finally, Question 5, which enacts ranked-choice voting, was deemed unconstitutional in an advisory opinion by Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court, and its future remains uncertain as lawmakers consider axing the initiative.
You would think after all of these legislative headaches resulting from ballot questions, the Maine Legislature would consider easing the burden on themselves by reforming the initiative process. Requiring signatures be gathered in both congressional districts will make it slightly more challenging for organizers to get their initiatives on the ballot, and Mainers would know on voting day that the question they’re considering has the support of people across the state.
The word in Augusta early Thursday morning was that LD 31 had garnered enough Democratic support to pass by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. When the Senate reconvened in the afternoon, however, Chipman had picked off a few colleagues and the bill failed 19-11. Sens. Michael Carpenter, Bill Diamond, James Dill, and Troy Jackson were the only Senate Democrats to vote in favor of the bill.
Chipman was paid to collect signatures for Questions 1 and 5 to appear on the ballot in 2016. The Bangor Daily News reported in December 2015 that Chipman had been paid $34,000 combined to gather signatures for both initiatives. His disclosure forms on the Maine Ethics Commission website also list his organizing and signature gathering efforts as a source of income.
Chipman would like to see signature collection remain exclusive to Portland, where he runs the show. Considering the location and political makeup of the citizenry, Chipman can collect enough signatures to push any liberal initiative on the Maine ballot in the future.
Notable 2nd Congressional District Democrat Sens. Geoffrey Gratwick of Bangor and Nate Libby of Lewiston, both voting against LD 31 on Thursday, must answer to constituents why their voice should not matter when it comes to ballot initiatives.
Broadly, voting down LD 31 was purely a political move by Senate Democrats. Considering LD 31 amends the Maine Constitution, its passage in the Senate on Thursday would have resulted in the measure appearing on the ballot this November. Because conservatives would show up at the polls in droves to vote in favor of ballot initiative reform, liberals do not want the measure to compete with the Medicaid Expansion referendum, which has already garnered enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
LD 31 will be reconsidered when the Senate convenes again on August 2, but unfortunately, there is no telling the fate of ballot reform in Maine.