Citizens' Initiative

How lawmakers can add much-needed transparency to the ballot initiative process

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Lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing today on LD 294, sponsored by Rep. Josh Morris, a bill that would require the state to print the estimated cost of a citizen’s initiative directly on the ballot.

In recent years, Mainers have been asked to approve several ballot questions that created new programs without being provided information about the cost of the measures. Mainers who do not normally engage in politics typically see only the ballot question – a carefully worded yes or no question – before casting their vote, which unfortunately gives voters only a surface level understanding of the policy question at hand.

For example, in 2016, Maine voters approved Question 1 to legalize recreational marijuana, but the question did not mention the costs the state would incur to establish the program, or the legislative time and money it would take to come to an agreement on implementing a regulatory framework.

In 2017, Mainers approved Question 2, Medicaid expansion, but were not told how much it would cost annually to expand coverage under the program. The question read:

“Do you want Maine to expand Medicaid to provide healthcare coverage for qualified adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 means $16,643 for a single person and $22,412 for a family of two?”

Any reasonable person reading this question is left to believe expansion going to help Mainers in poverty get ahead by providing them “free” health care. But if a fiscal impact estimate were provided, it would have shown that Medicaid expansion was estimated to cost approximately $54.5 million annually according to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review. What would the outcome have been had Maine voters known the price tag in advance of casting their vote?

It’s common for people to change their mind about things – particularly questions of public policy – when they’re given all of the information necessary to make an educated decision, which is why an additional layer of transparency would benefit Maine’s ballot initiative process.  When the public was recently polled about their support or opposition to a Medicare for All plan, 56 percent said they would support the plan and 42 percent opposed it. When more information was given about the tax burden most Americans would bear as a result of implementation, support for Medicare for All plummeted to 37 percent.

While this poll is not specific to the many policy questions Maine voters have seen in recent years, it does reflect how individuals react when information about the fiscal impact of a measure is provided. The difference in opinion reflects the power of transparency, especially when the general public is the deciding body in lawmaking through the ballot initiative process.

In addition, other states have taken steps to provide similar levels of transparency to voters at the ballot box. Similar to Maine, many states require fiscal impact statements to be produced for every ballot question and provide digests and summaries in newspapers and voter pamphlets, while others print fiscal impact statements directly on the ballot.

Maine can do more than publishing information about an initiative’s fiscal impact online and in the Citizen’s Guide to the Referendum Election; it should be printed on every ballot so Mainers undoubtedly know the impact of an initiative when making their decision.

Critics of LD 294 will likely cite the cost of printing additional ballot pages as a downside to this proposal. However, these costs can be avoided by simply printing a summary of an initiative’s fiscal impact instead of the full fiscal impact statement (typically a page). A brief summary denoting the net cost or savings to the state would suffice.

This information should only require a line or two of additional text on the ballot per question, or could be included in the question itself, eliminating the excessive costs of printing an entire fiscal impact statement.

Even the editorial team at the Bangor Daily News has endorsed this crucial reform, albeit halfheartedly.

Printing summaries of the fiscal impact of an initiative directly on the ballot is most transparent method of providing this information to voters, and it is the only way we can ensure voters have this information while casting their vote. Lawmakers should pass LD 294 to provide this critical layer of transparency to the electorate.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at MHPC. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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