If you’ve followed Maine politics in the last two years, you know that contention surrounding the ballot initiative process has animated much debate, both inside and outside the Maine Legislature.
Some, like the Maine Heritage Policy Center, believe that our referendum process is dysfunctional and easily manipulated by outside interests who use Maine to experiment with radical policies. Others, including the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), a major contributor to several recent ballot initiatives, argue that the referendum process provides an important check on legislative inaction by enabling Mainers to directly enact popular but politically infeasible laws.
After Mainers approved a record number of ballot initiatives in 2016 and many conservatives called on the legislature to amend Maine’s referendum process, progressives – led by the MPA – accused legislators of ignoring the “will of the people” and undermining democratic decision-making.
Whatever its merits, this argument has been conveniently discarded by the MPA in the aftermath of its stinging defeat over Question 1, the universal home care initiative that failed at the ballot box on Nov. 6.
Days after November’s election, progressives announced that they had not given up the fight. “We take politicians across the state at their words that they are now committed to taking real action,” said Ben Chin, who managed the “Yes on One” campaign. “We’ll be turning our full attention to the legislature to make sure that they do.”
With strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, a universal home care program may have significant traction in the halls of the State House. Whether such a proposal could earn Governor Mills’ signature is an open question, though her opposition to the ballot initiative suggests that its supporters may need to make substantial concessions to win her over.
Putting aside its political feasibility, the MPA’s eagerness to launch a legislative campaign to pass a universal home care program is rich with hypocrisy. After railing about the importance of respecting the “will of the people” and of not overturning laws passed by referendum, the MPA now seems willing to disregard the clear choice of the Maine electorate and enact a massively unpopular program anyway.
Of course, supporters of the universal home care program have every right to take their case before the people’s representatives in Augusta. That is the way laws should be debated and passed.
But it’s worth noting that Mainers rejected the universal home care initiative by a far larger margin than they passed a minimum wage hike in 2016 or even Medicaid expansion in 2017. This was not a close call; the MPA can hardly argue that the will of the people isn’t clear.
Yet the political expediency of the MPA’s previously populist stance has never been more apparent. As long as its policymaking objectives could be achieved at the ballot box, the MPA was happy to praise the initiative process and demonize those lawmakers who were willing to amend laws approved by referendum. Now, after an overwhelming defeat at the ballot box, the MPA has abandoned its populist rhetoric to focus on lobbying the legislature.
Hypocrisy is nothing new in politics, but rarely is it so blatant.