Rep. Rich Cebra column: Rich history of citizen involvement

State Representative Rich Cebra

By Rich Cebra

Maine State Representative

By now, most Maine people are familiar with the “Referendum Process” in our great state. It essentially works like this. You come up with an idea. You present it to the Secretary of State, who then gives you a petition that allows you to collect registered voter signatures throughout Maine.

Once you have collected a little over 61,000 “certified” signatures of registered voters, the Secretary of State certifies the petition and then it heads to the Maine Legislature. The Maine Legislature can then enact the petition, as written, into law, or reject it and then send it out to the voters for their determination.

It is a big process and not an easy one, unless you have a lot of money. If you have a lot of money, this process is not difficult at all. You simply buy your way onto the ballot by paying people to collect signatures on the corners of the busiest streets in Portland. Portland is the State of Maine’s most populous city and therefore the most target-rich-environment for collecting signatures.

If the petition is passed by the people of Maine at the ballot box, it becomes law, unless the Maine Legislature decides to address the details of the petition through legislation. There is no vetting of the petition and its details before a vote. There is no determination if the petition contents are even constitutional. There is certainly no public hearing, where all sides are heard.

The petitioners run a “paid for campaign” designed to win at the ballot box, period. Often, they are not telling the full truth and, in some cases, not telling the truth at all about what the actual petition would do if it becomes law because of a “yes” vote by the people.

The original intent of this process was to provide a “grassroots” movement of the citizens of Maine a method to address issues they felt the Legislature had not addressed. Today, this is not the case at all. Today, this process is about big monied interests, often from out-of-state, attempting to tell the people of Maine how they should live and how they should be taxed. It makes no common sense and we must make changes to the process to protect the people of Maine from big monied, special interests and a very flawed public policy process.

Currently, Assistant Republican Leader in the Maine House, Ellie Espling, has a bill before the Legislature that would modify how petitioners collect their signatures. If you stand on a street corner in Portland, or simply go to a Portland polling place on Election Day, you can gather a great deal of your signatures without ever venturing into central and northern Maine. This is wrong. While Portland may be the economic engine of Maine, it does not mean their geography should tell the rest of Maine how to live.

Espling’s proposal would equally divide the number of signatures needed between Maine’s two congressional districts. From a practical standpoint, it would add another level of difficulty, and another level of integrity to the signature-collection process. No longer would monied interests simply be able to park themselves in greater Portland, gather their needed signatures, and punish the rest of Maine with their progressive radical ideas.

Let’s think about 2016 and the five referendums that were on the Maine ballot. Four of the five received a majority “yes” vote from the people of Maine. A gun control measure failed. The four that passed have all had to be radically altered by the Maine Legislature, and two, Rank Choice Voting and the legalization of marijuana, are still in various states of limbo. In the case of Rank Choice Voting, the Maine Law Court gave an advisory opinion that the legislation is unconstitutional.

Clearly, these measures had all sorts of issues and those issues could have been dealt with in a public hearing. These issues could also have been dealt with by a thorough vetting from Maine lawmakers.

The school funding measure, as an example, instituted a 3% sur-tax on taxable incomes above $200,000. The proponents ran a campaign saying the taxes derived from the 3% sur-tax would be dedicated to the state’s education fund. Many Maine citizens supported it because we all want good schools for our children. The problem is, under the Maine Constitution, you cannot dedicate tax revenue to a specific operation. The money goes into the state’s general fund and the Legislature, through the budget process, determines where the money goes. It potentially goes into a very deep dark hole to be divvied out to the most vocal lobbying group.

The point is this. The referendum process, a necessary tool for Maine citizens to use when they feel their elected leaders are not addressing issues, must be reformed. This grassroots process has become the preferred method of law-making by elite big monied interests who care little for the people of Maine, and care a lot about the money and power they will gain from the referendum’s passage.

Espling’s bill is a good start, but we must do more. We should consider raising the number of signatures required to place an issue on the ballot. We should also look at how we can be more inclusive of the entire state when collecting signatures to place something on the ballot.

Maine has a rich history of citizen involvement, and we do not want to do anything to dampen that involvement. We cannot, however, allow big monied, special interests from away to masquerade as a grassroots effort, and then deceive Maine people about their intentions. I will continue to work diligently to reform this process and protect its integrity, and I plan on sponsoring the legislation needed to fix this mess in the next legislature.


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