The Universal Notebook: Government by referendum

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In one of the most blatantly hypocritical guest editorials ever printed in a Portland newspaper, an analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center last week complained that outside groups are funding citizen initiatives in Maine.

This from a conservative political organization that is largely funded by outside groups.

“Maine’s ballot initiative system,” claimed the Maine Heritage Policy Center, “is exploited regularly by outside interests who use groups like the Maine People’s Alliance as lackeys to do their bidding.”

Maine Heritage Policy Center singled out the Maine People’s Alliance because the progressive social action group has mounted successful referendum campaigns in recent years to expand Medicaid, tax the rich to pay for education and raise the minimum wage. In November, Maine People’s Alliance has yet another referendum question on the ballot seeking to fund universal home care for the elderly and disabled by imposing a payroll tax on incomes over $128,400.

Until Maine Heritage Policy Center starts disclosing where it gets its money I see no reason why any Maine publication should give this conservative lobbying group free space to spin its agenda. Maine media is exploited regularly by outside interests who use groups like Maine Heritage Policy Center as lackeys to do their bidding.

Maine Heritage Policy Center is a tool of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council and gets much of its funding from far-right sources such as Cato Institute, Jaquelin Hume Foundation, Roe Foundation, State Policy Network, the Koch Brothers and the Donors Capital Fund. Suffice it to say, nothing it reports can be relied upon to be anything other than conservative propaganda.

So when Maine Heritage Policy Center complains that the people who fund citizen initiatives “just don’t live in Maine,” someone should remind them that, regardless of who pays to gather signatures, all the signatures have to be verified as Maine residents and, regardless of how much money out-of-state donors pour into political campaigns and pay shills to editorialize, they don’t get to vote.

A referendum vote is a form of direct democracy. Maine Heritage Policy Center would like us to believe that citizen initiatives are not the will of the people because Maine people aren’t funding them. But, hey, that’s the best of all possible worlds. Fat cats from away pay the bills, but only Maine people get to vote.

Maine people clearly express their will in referendum votes, but the state Legislature and the governor have repeatedly thwarted the expressed will of the Maine people by finding excuses not to do what the people have told them to do. Ironically, in the circular firing squad that is state government, the main reason we have so many major referendum initiatives in the first place is that the Legislature, hamstrung by obstructionist Republicans, can’t get its act together to make thoughtful public policy.

Ballot initiatives are not the best way to make public policy. We would all be better off if policies were developed by a consensus process involving all stakeholders and then enacted by our elected representatives, but that seems to be too much to ask these days.

Question 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot is a perfect example of legislative failure. It is on the ballot because the Legislature refused to act on LD 1864, “An Act to Establish Universal Home Care for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities.” The Democrat-controlled House refused to hold a public hearing on the bill while the Republican-controlled Senate was eager to do so in order to embarrass Democrats.

The Maine business community has come out with all guns blazing against Question 1, charging the proposed tax is unfair and unconstitutional, the board that would oversee home health care is unelected, and the whole referendum is an underhanded scam aimed at unionizing home health care workers.

And, oh yes, opponents also complain that most of the funding for the referendum came from out of state, namely from the Open Society Foundation established by billionaire George Soros, who is to progressive causes what the Koch brothers are to conservative agendas. Who funded Question 1 is immaterial. Maine has been remote-controlled its entire history.

Led by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Question 1 opponents include the Maine Hospital Association, Spectrum Healthcare and Homecare & Hospice Alliance of Maine, as well as business associations representing everyone from innkeepers and auto dealers to contractors, manufacturers, Realtors and retailers.

All this opposition tells me that the Maine People’s Alliance has once again succeeded in raising a vital public policy issue, and I hope they succeed again. I support Question 1 knowing full well that the state Legislature won’t let it stand, but it will be forced to act.

That alone is worth a Yes vote.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.