Eye on Augusta: Lawmakers Take Aim at the Citizen Referendum, Voter Suppression Bills Return & More
Thursday, February 09, 2017 10:10 AM
Once upon a time, both the Maine Legislature and the governor’s office were run by Democrats. With both branches under their control, Democrats were able to push a number of liberal priorities including a quasi-public health insurance program, gay marriage and tax reform. But the ruling party had to deal with a recurring head-ache: the citizen initiative. Although they could get steamrolled in the State House, conservative activists proved to be quite effective in repealing tax reform, vetoing same-sex marriage and repealing a beverage tax needed to fund the health insurance program. But now the shoe is on the other foot.
“The liberals that I talk about tonight make each and every elected official in this body irrelevant because they’re going straight to referendum,” Gov. LePage bellowed in his State of the State address before the Legislature on Tuesday. “We need to reform the referendum process and we need to return to a representative government! You know I hear the word democracy every day. We are not a democracy. We are a representative republic and we the elected officials need to act like it.”
The citizen initiative was enacted by the Legislature in 1909 in response to widespread voter dissatisfaction with the responsiveness of their elected officials. It was used very rarely in the early days — only 10 times between 1911 and 1972 — but in the age of popular mistrust and frustration in government there have been 45 citizen initiatives in the past 27 years alone.
In the first four decades of its existence, progressives and labor activists used the citizen referendum to establish a 48-hour work week for women and minors (1923) and to raise taxes on electric utilities (1933), while business interests tried to put a pair of anti-labor union measures on the ballot in 1947. All four measures failed and it wasn’t until 1971 when another one was launched — the state income tax repeal initiative, which was resoundingly defeated on a vote of 190,261 to 63,393.
In the 1980s, anti-nuclear activists tried unsuccessfully to use the citizen initiative to ban nuclear power and more tightly regulate nuclear waste disposal. In 1986, Mainers unequivocally told religious conservatives to keep their pious fingers off porn by crushing an effort to ban “obscene material” with nearly 72 percent of the vote. In the 1990s, conservatives had some success with passing term limits while liberal reformers managed to pass the landmark 1996 Clean Elections law. In the mid 2000s, conservatives pushed unsuccessfully to pass tax caps and an excise tax repeal, but found much more success in vetoing a number of the ruling Democrats’ most ambitious initiatives through the referendum process.
But under the reign of LePage, the citizen referendum has been a tremendously effective tool for progressive groups who have successfully strengthened the Clean Elections Act, finally passed same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana, passed ranked-choice voting, raised the minimum wage and partially rolled back LePage’s tax cuts for the wealthy. And ballot measures to ban bear baiting and require background checks for firearms, while unsuccessful, have nonetheless infuriated conservatives. At the same time, the deluge of progressive referendums has also allowed the governor to exploit regional and class tensions by arguing that wealthier southern Mainers are dictating policy for conservative rural Maine through the referendum process.
“Liberals from Southern Maine never go to Calais, Machias, Rumford, Fort Kent,” said LePage. “I do. I see elderly living in poverty. I see Maine families struggling.”
The Anti-Referendum Bills
On Monday, February 13, at 10 a.m. the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear a number of bills aimed at weakening the ability of citizens to launch referndums. LD 31, sponsored by Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling (R-New Gloucester), would amend the state Constitution by requiring that signatures for a referendum be of voters from each of the two congressional districts. Rep. Stacey Guerin (R-Glenburn) will introduce LD 53, which would prohibit groups from paying petition gatherers based on how many signatures they collect for a citizen initiative.
And Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) will present LD 212, which would double the number of voter signatures needed for a referendum from 5 percent of the total votes in the previous gubernatorial election to 10 percent, which would mean about 122,000 signatures. Harvell’s proposal would also require that the signatures be from each of the State Senate districts. Finally, Rep. Steve Wood (R-Greene) will also present a constitutional amendment to require that state laws governing wildlife management, such as the ban on hounding and baiting bears, not be amended by the citizen initiative process.
However, it’s unlikely any of these amendments will receive the two-thirds necessary to pass, given the partisan makeup of the Legislature. And as one lone Democratic legislator pointed out so prophetically back in 2010 as the caucus considered similar measures to beat back conservative anti-tax referendums: “What happens if we ever lose power? We may need the referendum again someday.”
On the same day, VLA will also consider LD 298, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), which would prohibit state agencies from expending public resources to influence the outcome of citizen referendums. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife came under fire back in 2014 for spending $31,000 on campaign materials, television ads and staff time to oppose the anti-bear baiting referendum.
Voter ID & Other Voter Suppression Efforts
Last fall, Gov. LePage often made several dubious claims that the election was rigged and that non-residents, undocumented immigrants and dead people were voting. In an announcement on the eve of the election, LePage threatened to investigate college students who voted to ensure that they were complying with residency requirements like vehicle registration and getting Maine driver’s licenses. The move triggered the ACLU to file a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice alleging voter intimidation in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
At the time, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap noted that while it is true that new residents must eventually update their drivers licenses and pay excise taxes, “there are no statutory triggers” that force voters to get a driver’s license or pay excise taxes immediately on their vehicles in their town of residence.
“Your right to vote is not connected to meeting other civic obligations like paying fees or taxes,” said Dunlap.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) is hoping to change the law with LD 155, which would require the election clerks to take a number of steps to verify residency when a voter lists his/her residence address as a college dormitory. The bill, which will be heard by the VLA Committee on Feb. 15, would require that the voter show proof on a driver’s license that the address matches his/her Maine address, that the voter’s vehicle is registered in Maine and that the voter pays income taxes and/or property taxes in Maine.
In 2011, Maine GOP Chair Charlie Webster gave nearly 200 names of registered college student voters in Maine who he claimed might have been fraudulently voting to Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers, but no evidence of fraud was found.
Rep. Brad Farrin (R-Norridgewock) is also bringing back the perennial voter ID bill, LD 121, which would require voters to provide a photo ID before voting. The bill would allow voters without a photo ID to cast a provisional ballot, but their votes wouldn’t count unless they present a photo ID within five business days. LD 121 would require the Secretary of State to provide free state IDs to eligible voters who do not have any other form of photo identification.
Following Summers’ investigation into alleged voter fraud, the bipartisan Elections Commission determined in 2012 that the “state enjoys a credible, well-administered elections system” and recommended against adopting a voter ID law because, in part, it would likely restrict the rights of many citizens to vote.
National Popular Vote
Following President Donald Trump’s victory by winning the Electoral College, but losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Democrats are back with a proposal to try to make an end-run around the Electoral College. LD 156, sponsored by Rep. Deane Rykerson (D-Kittery), would pledge Maine’s electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Under the “National Popular Vote” proposal, Maine would join an inter-state compact, which currently has 11 states (CA, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT & WA) pledging 165 electoral votes. The legislation would trigger member states to cast their votes to the popular-vote winner once states totaling at least 270 electoral votes join the compact. The bill will be heard by the VLA Committee on Feburary 15.
Bonds and Clean Elections
On February 17, the VLA Committee will also hear Rep. Paula Sutton’s (R-Warren) bill, LD 300, to eliminate Maine Clean Election Act funding for gubernatorial candidates. In 2015, voters approved a ballot measure to increase public financing for state candidates. Sutton helped lead the campaign against the referendum, likening the program to “welfare for politicians.” Sutton will also introduce LD 299, which would require the state treasurer to print the total amount of debt the state has on each bond ballot question or attached as a separate document to inform voters.
Flame Retardant Ban
Rep. Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) has resurrected a bill to ban the sale of upholstered furniture containing flame-retardant chemicals. A similar measure was submitted last session but never received a hearing. The bill, LD 182, comes as evidence grows about the potential harmful effects of flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer, infertility and other health problems. A 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series titled “Playing With Fire” alleged that three chemical companies that produce flame retardants have spent millions of dollars to mislead the public and federal regulators to cover up the harmful health effects of flame retardants and promote their use despite studies showing that the materials are ineffective at preventing fires. In addition to adult furniture, toxic flame retardants have also been found in baby mattresses and play furniture. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hear the bill on February 13.
A States Rights Bill
Next week, Montville farmer GW Martin is going back up to Augusta to argue his case that new federal rules should be vetted by the Maine Legislature first. Martin says he first became familiar with how new federal laws can be made without Congressional or state legislative oversight after the US Department of Agriculture handed down new rules requiring stricter regulation of raw milk. Maine regulators soon followed suit by changing the state’s own milk rules and penalizing unlicensed raw milk producers. Martin says recent rules have also made it impossible for him to get outdated milk to feed his pigs, which has hurt his business.
Martin and other local-food activists are backing LD 23, sponsored by Rep. Stan Paige Zeigler (D-Montville), which would compel state agencies to give the Legislature a chance to review new federal rules before they are implemented. Martin argues that allowing unelected federal agency regulators to make rules without state oversight relinquishes rights under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
LD 23 would have broad ramifications across several department jurisdictions and the same bill was soundly defeated last session. However, Martin says it may have better luck this time in attracting conservatives fed up with alleged corruption in federal rule making and newly radicalized progressives opposing the Trump administration.
“The time is right for both sides,” said Martin. “The Democrats are pissed about all the friggin’ executive orders Trump is making. Now they can literally make rules without our local legislators having the ability to stop them.”
The State and Local Committee will hear the bill on February 13.
OUIs & Military Police
On February 13, the Criminal Justice Committee will take up LD 225, sponsored by Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland Cty.), which would allow a court to prohibit a person convicted of an OUI from purchasing alcohol while their license is suspended. Also up for a public hearing will be LD 248, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Guerin (R-Glenburn), which would exempt veterans who have served as military police officers and have been hired as law enforcement officers from having to attend basic law enforcement training by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Maine State Bank Bill Returns
Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) will present LD 237, which would establish a state-run bank, to the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee on February 14. Miramant’s bill would direct state agencies to deposit all public funds into the bank, which would have the capacity to make loans. Any revenue the bank generates would be deposited into the state’s rainy-day fund. The measure would require that the bank be capitalized at least $20 million and have a board of directors and advisory committee. LD 237 would also allow counties and municipalities to establish their own public banks.
The Bank of North Dakota, which has operated for nearly 100 years, is the only state-run bank in the US. BND offers low-interest student loans and business development loans as well as state and municipal bonds. Maine has considered a state bank bill every session since the Wall Street crash as proponents argue that investing in a state bank is safer than in Wall Street banks. Currently, the largest holdings in Maine’s investment portfolio are in People’s United Bank, TD Bank, Camden National Bank, Citizens Bank and Bar Harbor Bank and Trust. Last session a similar bank bill was opposed by the Maine Banking Association and State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who argued that the measure was unnecessary and would overlap with Maine’s existing revolving loan program, the Finance Authority of Maine.
Chiropractic Care & Public Assistance
On February 14, the Health & Human Services Committee will consider LD 320, sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby, which would mandate that chiropractic services be covered by MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people. On the same day, over in Insurance and Financial Affairs, Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin Cty.) will be introducing his bill LD 239, which would require banks to provide account balance information of people receiving public assistance to the state or a municipality.
Smart Meter Opt-Out Fees
Ever since Central Maine Power introduced its “Smart Meters” to electronically measure customers’ electrical use, some residents have charged that the radiofrequency radiation produced by the devices can create adverse health effects despite rulings by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Maine Supreme Court that smart meters pose no credible threat to health or safety. Under current law, customers can opt out of smart meters for a monthly charge. Sen. Dave Miramant (D-Knox Cty.) has submitted LD 229, which would prohibit utilities from charging the fee or higher rate for opting out. The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee will hear the bill on February 14.
Animal Welfare Bills
The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will consider a number of bills addressing animal cruelty on February 14. LD 157, sponsored by Rep. Chris Johansen (R-Monticello) would require veterinarians to immediately report to the state when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect that an animal is being subjected to cruelty or neglect. Current law only requires vets to report when there is suspicion of “aggravated animal cruelty,” which is when a person tortures an animal or causes extreme pain or death to an animal.
The committee will also hear LD 245, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Cardone (D-Bangor), which would repeal a law that establishes an affirmative defense for certain animal welfare violations if the animal is kept as part of an agricultural operation and in compliance with best management practices for animal husbandry as determined by the state. ACF will also hear LD 246, sponsored by Rep. Donna Bailey (D-Saco), which would mandate that publicly funded research facilities offer for adoption their cats and dogs that have been used in research experiments when the animals are no longer needed, rather than euthanizing them.
Pesticide-Free School Grounds Bill
Rep. Matthea Daughtry (D-Brunswick) has brought back a bill to restrict the use of pesticides on school grounds. LD 174, to be heard by the the ACF Committee on Feb. 14, would allow the use of pesticides on school grounds only when the presence of animals or insects pose a health threat to students or staff. It would also permit the use of pesticides on athletic fields only when it’s determined necessary by the school for the health and safety of the students. It would require the state to adopt rules that minimize the necessity of using pesticides on school grounds for new construction of schools. A similar bill was presented in 2011 and 2013 and garnered support from environmental and public health advocacy groups, but school boards and administrators opposed it, arguing that the measure was too cumbersome and that current pesticide management practices are sufficient in mitigating exposure to toxins.
Car Inspections, Insurance & Weight Limits
The Transportation Committee will hear a couple of bills to reform the mandatory car inspection law on February 14. LD 29, sponsored by Rep. Rich Cebra (R-Naples), would remove the imprisonment penalty for car inspection violations and would reduce the fines for a first offense. Under the proposal, offenders would see the penalty reduced to $25 to $100 for the first offense and $25 to $250 for each subsequent offense. Under current law, inspection violations can be punishable by a fine of between $25 and $500 or up to 30 days’ incarceration.
Cebra has also sponsored LD 154, which would prohibit vehicle inspectors from failing an annual inspection for “aesthetic reasons or for minor mechanical defects.” The inspection standards would simply require that a car’s equipment be in good working order; be safely attached to the body of the vehicle; be mechanically safe; not pose a hazard to the occupants of the vehicle or the public; and that it meet State Police standards.
On February 16, the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee will hear LD 308, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond (D-Cumberland Cty.), which would prohibit car insurance companies from charging higher premiums, refusing to issue insurance plans, limiting coverage or canceling coverage based solely on the age of the driver. On February 16, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox), who is a farmer, will introduce LD 208, which would exempt vehicles hauling animal bedding from posted road restrictions imposed by the state, counties or towns.
Governor’s Salary & Daylight Savings Time
At $70,000 per year, Gov. Paul LePage is by far the lowest paid governor of all the 50 states. Several attempts have been made to raise the salary of the state’s chief executive, but have never gone anywhere. On February 15, the State and Local Committee will hear LD 69, sponsored by Rep. Brad Farrin (R-Norridgewock), which would raise the next governor’s salary up to $150,000 per year. The proposal would put Maine even with Maryland, which has the nation’s 12th highest paid governor, according to the site Ballotpedia.
But while LePage has fought for upping the next governor’s salary in the past, he told a radio station last week that he’s given up. “I tried to fix it for the next guy and I got crucified so not again,” said the governor. “Let the next guy fend for himself.”
On the same day, the committee will hear a bill sponsored by Rep. Donna Bailey (D-Saco) to exempt Maine from observing daylight savings time and request the federal government to allow Maine to switch to the Atlantic Time Zone.
The committee heard a similar bill last week that found support among lawmakers and members of the public looking forward to an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day in the winter. The Maine Association of Broadcasters opposed the bill, arguing that the shift would “cause utter chaos” in the broadcasting industry because programming would end up being shown an hour later. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap suggested that the committee do a cost-benefit study to determine whether the advantages of switching time zones would outweigh the drawbacks.
Tax Exemptions for Olympians & Soldiers
On February 15, the Taxation Committee will hear LD 205, sponsored by Rep. Lester Ordway (R-Standish), which would provide a tax exemption for prizes rewarded to competitors in the Olympics and other international athletic competitions. It’s not known how many people this highly targeted tax exemption would affect, but Olympic snowboarder Seth Wescott comes to mind. On the same day, Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling will introduce a proposal to provide tax breaks for active-duty military service members. Finally Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) will introduce a measure to repeal the service provider tax, which applies to community mental health services, cable and satellite TV services, assisted living homes, maintenance of telecommunications equipment, telecommunications services and rentals of audio/video equipment and furniture.
For a full list of public hearings and to listen to committee deliberations online, visit: legislature.maine.gov/Calendar/#PHWS/2017-02-12