Citizens' Initiative

Governor Mills signs bill to increase transparency in ballot initiative process

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Governor Janet Mills yesterday signed LD 1209, “An Act To Require Legislative Hearings on Citizen-initiated Legislation” into Maine law. The law, sponsored by Rep. Richard Bradstreet, requires the Maine Legislature to hold public hearings on all citizen initiatives before they appear on the statewide ballot. Under LD 1209, a public hearing can only be avoided if two-thirds of all members present in both legislative chambers vote against holding a hearing.

The bipartisan bill went under the hammer in both chambers until its final enactment vote in the Senate where it prevailed 32-3.

“By signing this legislation into law, we are strengthening the referendum process and ensuring that the people of Maine have access to critical information through the public hearing process so they can make informed decisions on the questions before them,” Gov. Mills said.

“This new law will bring much needed transparency to the referendum system by requiring every measure be vetted by the Legislature before it is sent out for a vote,” said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a co-sponsor of the bill.

While the Maine Legislature already has the option to hold public hearings on ballot measures, lawmakers in recent years have elected not to hold a public hearing on these issues before sending them to voters.

Since 2012, the Maine Legislature has chosen to hold a public hearing on just one ballot initiative – Question 1 in 2017, or LD 719 in the 128th Legislature – an initiative that would have established slot machines or a casino in York County. The measure failed overwhelmingly at the ballot box, with 83 percent of Maine voters rejecting it.

According to materials distributed at the public hearing and work session on LD 1209, lawmakers held a public hearing on every ballot initiative considered by Maine voters between 1977 and 2011, and proposed three competing measures. By requiring the Legislature to hold a public hearing, lawmakers will have the opportunity to engage with the public and learn more about the initiative, increasing the likelihood of the legislature adopting a competing measure that addresses any concerns with the original language of the measure. 

“The value of a public hearing is unquestionable,” The Maine Heritage Policy Center CEO Matthew Gagnon said. “The bills debated on a regular basis in Augusta are afforded public hearings, work sessions and amendment and language reviews. They each get special care and attention in committee that ballot initiatives have not received.”

In its original form, LD 1209 would have required the committee of jurisdiction or a committee formed by the Legislative Council to hold a public hearing on all initiatives for which the Maine Secretary of State approves petitions. Under the amended version of LD 1209 signed into law by Gov. Mills, lawmakers would be required to hold a public hearing on a ballot measure unless two-thirds of all members present in both legislative chambers vote against holding a hearing. This is an exceptionally high threshold that will be difficult to reach, injecting a new layer of transparency into Maine’s ballot initiative process.
 
“Lawmakers should learn as much as they can about an initiative before taking formal action, and should seriously consider the value of adopting competing measures when legitimately flawed initiatives achieve ballot status,” Gagnon said.
 
LD 1209 is one of several important ballot initiative reform measures being considered by the Maine Legislature this session. Other bills to improve Maine’s ballot initiative process include LD 255, which would require petition signatures to be collected in both congressional districts; LD 534, which would require ballot questions to be written “as simply as is possible”; and LD 1669, which would allow the attorney general to review a ballot question and issue a nonbinding legal opinion regarding its potential constitutional concerns while petitioners still have the opportunity to change the language of their initiative.

Under LD 1669, organizing groups would not be required to change their petition if the attorney general identifies an area where a proposed initiative may conflict with the Maine Constitution, but it would afford them the opportunity to avoid potential setbacks before petitions are finalized and the language of the initiative can no longer be altered.

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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