Get ready for referendum chaos in Maine this fall

By Matthew Gagnon

Seven years ago, I declared that Maine was in the beginning stages of a referendum arms race, with no end in sight.

After Maine approved the constitutional amendment that gave the state a referendum process in 1908, the power was used sparingly. As I noted then, in the first six decades of its existence, “the initiative process was only used seven times, and no initiatives appeared on the ballot in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Things changed over time, though, as the business of politics started to become more professionalized and special interests started to take note of the utility that referendums offered them. 

Radical, highly partisan groups began to realize the legislative process is a meatgrinder, and it inherently pushes bills toward moderation and consensus, because passage takes time and is influenced by many people. The referendum process, by comparison, is a different thing altogether. It allows a group to circumvent the representative process in favor of statewide votes.

In that venue, they could enjoy many advantages like incredibly one-sided campaign spending. This was the case in campaigns like Question 5 in 2016, when proponents of ranked-choice voting spent more than $2.4 million on ads arguing in favor, and opponents spent essentially nothing. 

They could also enjoy the advantages of messaging. In a referendum campaign, you can win if you cut a slick ad, come up with a clever catch-phrase, or even just outright lie about what you are doing. 

But there is a bigger advantage that special interests enjoy in referendums: populism. 

The most defining characteristic of populism is the identification with the emotional sentiments of “the people” against “the elite.” To special interests, populism represents a powerful weapon that can be used to accomplish things that could never be accomplished otherwise. 

This was largely what was behind Portland’s institution of rent control three years ago. Hard-left activists preyed on the resentment and frustration of everyday renters, and the unpopularity of landlords, to enact an idea that has been almost universally rejected  as counterproductive and harmful by economists. 

The stakes are raised significantly this year in Maine as we will be faced with eight referendum questions this November. Two of those questions are squarely aimed at Central Maine Power, the single most unpopular entity in the state.

Question 3 asks the people of Maine to approve a public takeover of the state’s utility transmission companies (CMP and Versant), and to create the Pine Tree Power Company. The question is unlikely to pass on the merits of the proposal, which would force the state to take on billions of dollars of new debt while creating a political crony and special interest management body, through a combination of political appointments and high-stakes elective seats. Making matters worse, we can expect years of grueling, expensive litigation that approval of the question would set off.

So it is no surprise that proponents of the question have been making an alternative, more popular argument: You hate CMP, so this is your chance to take their stuff and stick it to them. 

Emotionally satisfying as that may be, this is a horrible reason to vote for anything. The moment the political process becomes retributive in nature, using the power of the government to settle scores and tear down the unpopular, a dangerous precedent is established. 

But in the end, this kind of thing has tended to work, even though it shouldn’t, and this has incentivized more of it being done. As the populist targets grow in size and frequency, there is an inevitable push back from special interests, which are fighting against being attacked by other special interests. This is why in response to Question 3 and Question 2, the foreign campaign spending ban aimed at them, CMP has sponsored Question 1, which seeks to stop the public taking of their assets by instituting a new $1 billion debt accumulation vote statewide.

This, and many other examples, has the effect of turning Maine law into a combination of extreme, ill-considered, slapped-together ideas, twisted into a pretzel by reactionary complications that make a mockery out of the system. If the first three questions all pass, it would mean absolute chaos in Maine for years as the contradictions sort themselves out.

Now, a system that was intended to give voice to the people has instead given birth to a feeding frenzy of wealthy special interests, using the process to duel with one another over what is best for them, with little mindfulness to what is best for us. 

Stop empowering them. Stop incentivizing them. Say no to special interests using referendums as their plaything.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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