This week, lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on LD 252, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a bill to amend the constitution to prohibit the ballot initiative process from being used to enact new or increased taxes and fees.
This constitutional amendment is worth pursuing for several reasons.
Citizen initiatives are not currently vetted appropriately and do not receive proper scrutiny before being sent to voters. In addition, other states have taken steps to limit the types of initiatives that can appear on the ballot, including similar protections against new taxes and fees. Allowing the “many” to make laws that impose more taxes and fees for the “few” is unproductive and has proven to hamstring lawmakers in Maine for entire legislative sessions.
The kerfuffle over Question 2 in 2016, for example, led to the government shutdown in 2017, Maine’s first shutdown Maine since 1991. The matter was not resolved until lawmakers agreed to spend an additional $162 million on K-12 public education to offset the loss of the 3 percent surtax established under Question 2, which written out of the budget agreement.
When a measure to increase taxes or fees is proposed by the legislature, it is their obligation to vote up or down on the measure. It is first proposed, referred to and vetted by a committee, and thereafter voted on by the committee and both bodies of the legislature. This process helps to prevent harmful legislation from being passed and gives the public a chance to offer their thoughts through public hearings.
When a citizen initiative is proposed, the vetting process is not nearly as thorough. Qualifying initiatives are subject to a process whereby the legislature can enact it into law, take no action, or submit a competing measure for voters to consider simultaneously. If the legislature does not enact the initiative or establish a competing measure, it is sent to the citizens of Maine for a vote. Quite often, lawmakers send initiatives to voters without holding any public hearings on the bill.
While the initiative is subject to a 30-day public comment period, it does not go through the same scrutiny involved in the legislative process. Lawmakers often hear hours of robust debate and acquire most, if not all, facts before making a decision about moving forward on a bill. This fact finding process is imperative when making decisions about levying additional taxes and fees in Maine.
In addition to being under-scrutinized, Maine’s ballot initiative process is outdated and lags behind other states. Four states – Alaska, Massachusetts, Montana and Wyoming – that prohibit ballot initiatives from dedicating revenues or making appropriations, protections Maine does not employ. Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri and Nevada only allow initiatives to make appropriations if they identify a funding source. Prohibiting citizen initiatives from increasing taxes and fees will bring Maine in line with other states that have taken steps to prevent harmful policies from enacted at the ballot box.
Crafting complex tax policy at the ballot box is also logistical nightmare and a terrible way to make public policy, proven most clearly by the debate over the tax implications of Question 1 in 2018. Supporters and opponents of the measure sparred for months in the media over whether the initiative imposed a marriage penalty.
The founding fathers believed direct democracy limited the rights of the minority and allowed the majority to choose how the minority must live. James Madison called this “tyranny of the majority” and prevented it by supporting a representative government. Elected leaders in Augusta should be adopting tax policies collectively; these issues should not be left to voters at the ballot box where turnout could be low or minority populations could feel the wrath of the majority.
And given the influx of outside influence in Maine’s ballot initiative process, it simply does not make sense to allow residents of other states to dictate the tax policies of Maine. Of the more than $81 million contributed to Maine ballot initiative campaigns between 2009 and 2017, 71 percent of funds originated from out-of-state sources.
These groups take advantage of a cheap media market and use Maine as a guinea pig for radical proposals that could never withstand the deliberative scrutiny of the Maine Legislature. They don’t care about Maine people or our way of life; they simply want to put points on the scoreboard here in Maine so it becomes easier for them to pass similar initiatives elsewhere in the country.
For these reasons, preventing new taxes and fees from being created through referendum would be a wise decision for Maine to make. Bills that enact major changes to tax policy should be carefully vetted by the full legislature and subject to scrutiny throughout the entire legislative process.