The Maine Legislature doesn’t like to be told what to do.
That’s because the Legislature would prefer not doing anything.
For a politician, doing stuff is risky. No matter how innocuous the action (a proclamation declaring National Don’t Do A Damn Thing Day), there are going to be people who won’t like it (probably the Alliance of Highly Motivated Doers). Once legislators are on record for or against, the folks annoyed with whatever they did are going to light up social media with nasty comments. Protesters will take to the streets. Prominent political figures will issue statements of condemnation.
You can understand why the Legislature might prefer to punt. (Although even that gutless step could bring down the wrath of the Anti-Punting League.)
Trouble is, nature abhors a vacuum. (It’s never been clear why nature singles out this particular household appliance for its disdain, although it may have something to do with lobbying by Citizens United In Opposition to Suction-Producing Devices.) Legislative reluctance to take a stand creates lots of vacuums. (Which may account for why so many voters believe the Legislature sucks.)
Increase the minimum wage? Your state senators and representatives meant to tinker with that, but you know how the hours slip by and suddenly it’s dinnertime.
Boost education funding? So complicated that it might take awhile. Like forever.
Draft a new energy policy? Jeez, you think that education thing is confusing. This is way worse.
Approve Medicaid expansion? Gosh, look what day it is. Time for adjournment.
In the absence of detectable legislative activity, special interests have stepped into the gap with sloppily worded petitions seeking to put ill-considered referendum questions on the ballot. While some critics of this process — notably Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and mutant snapping turtle — have blamed this trend on liberals, the truth is conservatives have made use of the initiative process when circumstances suited them (eliminate the state income tax, repeal same-sex marriage). No part of the ideological spectrum is immune to the temptation to take their crusades directly to the voters.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The drafters of our system of governance (known as representational indifference) wisely included the referendum mechanism in order to allow the people to take action when the Legislature found itself unable or — more likely — unwilling to do so.
But nothing stirs the sluggish blood of a hibernating elected official like the possibility they’re being rendered irrelevant. And thus the Legislature — bypassed in recent years on issues ranging from ranked-choice voting to marijuana legalization to casino gambling — is finally threatening to do something.
It wants to change the referendum process to make it more difficult for voters to consider issues the Legislature refuses to deal with (an idea endorsed by the Union Of Elected Officials Concerned That Somebody Else May Dare To Do What We Don’t Dare To Do). And make no mistake, this is a bipartisan blunder.
“I think the process has gotten out of hand,” Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond told the Bangor Daily News. “I think something has to be done about it.”
“This process needs to be changed,” commented Garrett Mason, Senate GOP leader, to Maine Public. “It is interfering with our elected job as representatives of the people.”
Several bills have been introduced in an effort to stop mere voters from considering issues their wise leaders have determined would best be addressed by ignoring them. They include a number of barriers to collecting the required signatures to get a question on the ballot, currently 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election or just over 61,000 names of registered voters. These roadblocks include requiring at least some signatures from every state Senate district, requiring equal numbers of signers from each congressional district, outlawing initiatives that deal with hunting and fishing, and not allowing anyone whose name “sounds Muslim” to sign.
These are all stupid ideas (that last is not only stupid, but false), and legislators — if they were ever going to do anything — should reject them. Because there’s a simpler way to reduce the number of referendums:
The Legislature could do its job.