In late March, the 130th Maine Legislature met in-person at the Augusta Civic Center for just the second time this session, excluding swearing in day, to tackle the state’s next biennial budget. The $8.33 billion budget is the largest in Maine’s history and was passed on a simple majority vote, and without a public hearing.
That in and of itself is a casualty for transparency and good governance, but there was another unintended consequence of the majority Democrats’ rushed budget process: the legislature lost its opportunity to take action on LD 1295, the initiated bill transmitted from the secretary of state to the legislature concerning the construction of energy transmission lines on public lands.
In the late moments of the in-person legislative session on March 30, a supplement to the House and Senate calendars was introduced. The supplement was Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ official certification of the initiative and its corresponding initiated bill, LD 1295.
No CMP Corridor and Mainers for Local Power circulated petitions and collected more than 80,000 verified signatures to give Mainers the ability to decide the fate of the New England Clean Energy Connect and similar energy projects. In Maine, the legislature has the ability to pass citizen-initiated bills as originally written, propose a competing measure, or take no action on the item, pushing the issue to the ballot box.
However, the Maine Constitution makes clear that the legislature only has the ability to take action on a citizen-initiated bill in the session in which the legislation is introduced. Before adjourning, the legislature passed an order that carried over to future special sessions all bills and papers in its possession at the time of adjournment.
However, per the state constitution, the legislature does not have the ability to carry over a citizen-initiated bill to a new session of the legislature. As a result of adjourning sine die in late March, the legislature lost its opportunity to hold a public hearing on the bill or take any additional action on it before sending it to voters. Now Mainers will see yet another question on their ballot that was not subject to the deliberative scrutiny of their legislature.
Interestingly, the legislature itself recognizes this is a problem. In the 129th Legislature, the body passed LD 1209, a bill that requires public hearings on citizen-initiated bills. The bill was passed under the hammer in the House and a roll call vote in the Senate shows 32 senators supported the idea with only three in opposition. The Maine Constitution no doubt trumps this statutory language, though it’s amusing the Legislature skirted its own transparency requirement within one legislative session of its passage.
All signs pointed to the legislature intending to hold a public hearing on the matter. The initiated bill was first referenced to the committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT), but was re-referenced to both the EUT and Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committees before adjournment. Adjourning sine die eliminated this possibility, however.
It appears the only way to truly guarantee there is a public hearing on a ballot initiative before the issue is decided by voters is to amend the Maine Constitution.