Republican radio address

For the weekend of February 20-21, 2010

Greetings, this is Stacey Fitts, state representative from Pittsfield.

One of the great freedoms granted us by the Maine Constitution is the right to organize petition drives to bring about change that the Legislature refuses to make. At other times, the process is used to repeal laws that ignore the popular will. We saw the people’s veto used successfully last November to repeal the same-sex marriage law and we will see it again in June when the tax restructuring package comes up for a vote. Back in 1977, the people’s veto was used to repeal the state property tax. On big issues like these, it makes sense to have the whole state vote and not leave the decision to 186 imperfect legislators in Augusta.

The ballot initiative process is nothing new. It was embedded in Maine law in 1908, during a so-called progressive era of political reform. In recent years, it has been used more frequently to roll back legislative overreach or protect taxpayers from government. Since 1970 Maine has used both the initiative and referendum process more than 40 times. Critics like to complain that we have too many referendums, but most complaints come from people on the losing side of a popular vote. Referendums are democracy in action, and we should strive to make petitioning our government as easy as possible. In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we should not tolerate those who would throw up obstacles to block the free exercise of our constitutional rights.

This is not a history lesson. I mention these facts because three separate referendum bills are now moving through the Legislature and citizens need to be alert to anything that threatens the people’s sovereign power to legislate. All three bills are in the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, and as the ranking Republican I have tracked their progress.

One of the bills would amend the Maine Constitution to require that a referendum ballot identify the cost of implementing the initiative and explain how it would be paid for, such as by eliminating specific programs. On the surface, this bill appears reasonable. The referendum forcing the state to pay 55 percent of education expenses has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The initiative mandated the expenditure but said not one word about where the money would come from. That’s now a major part of Maine’s ongoing budget crisis. As a Constitutional amendment, this bill would require approval by two thirds of both houses of the Legislature and majority approval from the voters. That’s a long road. But if this effort succeeds, we would have to be watchful to make sure that the majority party did not assign an outrageously high cost to a referendum it opposes.

The other two bills suppress the referendum process itself. They would not end it outright, but their cumulative effect would make collecting signatures even tougher. One of them in particular would have a chilling impact on the people who circulate petitions and the people who sign them. This is LD 1690, sponsored by Representative Seth Berry, assistant leader of the House Democrats.

His bill sports an innocent sounding title – “An Act to Prevent Predatory Signature Gathering and Ensure a Clean Citizen Initiative and People’s Veto Process.” Who could be against “predatory” signature gathering? But the bill’s real goal is slightly different. It requires the Secretary of State to post electronic lists of certified signatures from petitions. Presumably, these lists would be put up on state government Web sites to make them accessible to anyone who wants to find out who signed a petition. Your privacy would disappear.

The trouble is that an electronic list of signers can be used to intimidate citizens in the future from signing petitions on controversial questions for fear of harassment, threats or even potential job loss. Would anyone have signed the Medical Marijuana petition if they knew their name would be publicly posted or that they might be singled out for a drug test?

Maine has an “at will” employment law, which allows employers to fire employees without citing a reason. Employees can file complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission if they believe they have been discharged for reasons of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or age. In Maine it is not illegal for a private employer to discriminate against someone because of their political beliefs. The Seth Berry bill would have a chilling effect on the gathering of signatures on such sensitive issues as the same-sex marriage repeal. It also would create a greater burden and cost on the Secretary of State’s office, which shot past deadlines last fall because it lacked the staff to verify signatures on the repeal of the tax overhaul law.

These bills haven’t passed yet, but they bear watching. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

This is Stacey Fitts. Thank you for listening and I wish you a safe and healthy week ahead.