System failure

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Even Paul LePage, Republican governor and cloud of alien flatulence, knows referendums are bad. That’s because LePage keeps a three-ring binder showing 90 percent of Maine’s referendum questions are written by African-Americans and Hispanics from out of state, which explains why they contain words like “popo,” “bae” and “fleek.” That inner-city slang could only have been brought here by drug dealers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Or, possibly, poseur white kids.

But that’s not why LePage, who insists he’s not a racist, opposes all five of the referendums we’ll be voting on this fall.

“I believe three of the questions on the November ballot are unconstitutional,” he wrote on a conservative website. “If they pass it will be impossible to uphold my oath of office.”

LePage is probably wrong about two of the three. Question 1, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use, conflicts with federal law, but not necessarily on constitutional grounds. Question 3, which requires background checks for private gun sales, has been litigated elsewhere and found not to violate the Second Amendment. As for Question 5, ranked-choice voting does appear to violate the state Constitution’s provisions requiring governors to be chosen by a plurality of the votes cast, and that municipal – rather than state – officials count ballots. If it passes, the courts will have a fine mess to sort out.

In addition, Question 2, which would hike taxes on the rich to pay for schools, attempts to bypass the legislative budget process, a shift that’s, at best, constitutionally problematic.

The bottom line: LePage is still right about legislating by referendum being wrong. As former GOP legislator Jonathan McKane put it in a recent newspaper op-ed, referendum campaigns result in “loose, oversimplified language [being] foisted on an unsuspecting public who are then bombarded with deceptive advertising.” If these measures pass, McKane said, we’ll see “more weakly drafted, unresearched, partisan and risky laws” in future elections, resulting in all manner of “disastrous consequences.”

McKane attributes the sudden surge in referendums to wealthy special interests. LePage claims liberals are behind these campaigns (everybody knows blacks and Hispanics are all left-wingers). They’ve both got it wrong.

The reason Maine is suffering from an infestation of citizen-initiated measures of dubious merit is because our elected leaders failed to do their jobs.

Maine’s referendum process, which requires organizers to gather signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of those who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial election, was put in place back in 1492 or maybe 1776, and was meant to provide the public with an outlet for their frustration on occasions when the governor and Legislature refused to deal with a pressing issue. For decades, these officials recognized that if they didn’t take some sort of action, voters might do so on their own. This possibility persuaded many a recalcitrant senator and representative to negotiate a compromise, rather than risk allowing normal people to meddle in matters they were incapable of fully comprehending.

But since LePage assumed office in 2011, the process of productive give and take has been largely absent from the State House. This governor doesn’t do deals. GOP legislators have sometimes backed LePage’s hardline positions, resulting in stalemates. At other times, Republicans have ignored the guv, thereby allowing certain issues to wither away. Democrats, realizing middle ground was nonexistent, saw no political advantage in offering concessions.

The result: Nothing happened.

Take for example, the minimum wage. The measure on the ballot calls for annual increases until the base pay reaches $12 per hour, after which it will be indexed to inflation. But two years ago, the governor and Legislature had every opportunity to pass a more modest hike to $10 per hour with no indexing. They refused to do so.

On gun control, there have been numerous chances ever since the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 to pass a more limited background-check bill, but it never got traction.

Marijuana legalization? Education funding? Election reform? All issues on which lawmakers could have acted responsibly , but instead punted.

Into that leadership vacuum stepped – depending on your viewpoint – assorted disgruntled citizens, devious political manipulators, or suspicious characters from out of state named “D-Money,” “Smoothie” and “Michael Bloomberg.”

No wonder our system is more frazzled than fleek.

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