2017-07-11 / Opinion

Referenda Still a Powerful Tool for Maine


After seeing the state shut down for three days in the midst of a bitter fight over the passage of a budget that would pass muster in a divided Legislature, Maine at last has a budget. What it no longer has, however, is the 3% surtax on incomes over $200,000 that would have insured full and sustainable funding of the state’s legal share of local education spending. The surtax, passed into law by voters at referendum last year, now joins ranked choice voting, marijuana legalization, and the minimum wage as referendums passed into law by voters that have met delay, alteration, legal challenge, or outright repeal following their passage at the ballot box.

Now that the the state government shutdown is in the rearview mirror and a biennial budget is in place, many on the left are beginning take stock and reflect on how and why the victories achieved at the ballot box through the referendum process did not translate into durable policy gains that survived legislative tinkering or the realities of bipartisan budget negotiation.

In watching the referendum fights take shape in the last political cycle, it seemed clear that those leading the charge on the referenda held the expectation that if voters directly mandated that a law be put into place, it would be politically impossible for legislators to so directly challenge or overturn the literal will of the people. Clearly, that has not been the case. In fact, conservative and business interests have proven capable and willing to leverage every mechanism of power at their disposal to undermine these referenda, going as far as literally shutting down state government in order to prevent the implementation of the surtax.

That said, notwithstanding the setbacks we have seen in these past months, referenda remain an indispensable tool in our political arsenal.

Despite LePage in the Blaine House and a nearly evenly-divided Legislature, the progressive policies mandated by the citizen initiatives have essentially framed the political landscape of the 128th Legislature, giving progressive legislators political cover to fight harder for core issues.

Outright repeal of a successful referendum requires legislators to affirmatively go on record opposing the people’s will, which makes hiding from these actions significantly more difficult for legislators.

The citizen initiative process itself pulls more average citizens into the political and legislative space, creating opportunities for everyday folks to become citizen lobbyists and breaking down barriers between the elected and their constituents. These are all amazingly helpful fringe benefits even when a referendum gets hijacked by unscrupulous legislators.

Legislators such as those Republicans in the House who led the charge on the repeal of the surtax and steered us into the state shutdown seem to be essentially gambling on whether or not they will ultimately face electoral consequences for their actions in the next general election in 2018. In order to maintain the viability of the citizen referendum as an instrument for direct democracy, it’s important that voters who supported these referendum questions and the referendum process itself to not let that gambit pay off for them in 2018.

In the meantime, we can stay mad as hell about it. But it shouldn’t stop us from trying again.

The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance.

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