Gov. Paul LePage delivers the State of the State address to the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

After marijuana legalization vote, Maine Gov. LePage wants to make it harder to get questions on ballots

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers may make it tougher for citizens to get questions on ballots as Gov. Paul LePage this week renewed his call to reform a system he’s called too representative of liberal-leaning Mainers.

In his final State of the State address Tuesday, the governor chastised out-of-state, special interests for pushing Maine ballot campaigns, and urged that lawmakers require the campaigns to get equal support across the state.

“Referendum is pure democracy and it has not worked for 15,000 years,” the Republican governor said.

But critics call one GOP lawmaker’s proposal to require signatures from each congressional district a short-sighted move that doesn’t solve the underlying issue of rural voters wanting bigger voices. Paul McCarrier, who ran the successful marijuana legalization campaign in 2016, said it could make it more costly and time-consuming for grassroots campaigns and in turn, make them more reliant on big, out-of-state contributions.

“I think it disenfranchises the voters of the state in that it essentially says some signatures are going to count more than others,” said Democratic Rep. Barbara Cardone.

Maine joins states like South Dakota, which is considering a Republican’s bill to require signatures from a majority of the state’s Senate districts. Two dozen states allow citizens to place issues on the ballot, and several, such as Mississippi, Alaska and Wyoming, require signatures to come from certain counties or congressional districts.

Courts have struck down such county-based requirements in Idaho, Nevada and Montana, while at times upholding efforts based on congressional districts. States with concerns about equal representation could also allow more time for signatures or reduce how many are required, said John Matsusaka, executive director of The University of Southern California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute.

Maine Republicans sponsored a number of bills to reform the referendum process following the 2016 election when voters approved five out of six ballot questions and rejected a measure to require background checks for private firearm sales.

Lawmakers have since spent months dealing with the aftermath of initiatives, and repealed a voter-approved tax on the wealthy.

But a number of Democrats have voiced support for Republican Rep. Ellie Espling’s proposed constitutional amendment to require signatures for ballot questions to come from each congressional district starting in 2019. A constitutional amendment would require two-thirds approval from lawmakers and the public in a statewide vote.

“I think it’s fairly easy to get something on the ballot if you can pay for the process,” Espling said, adding that the amendment won’t fix everything wrong with the citizen initiative process.

The Maine Secretary of State’s office has said it hasn’t found constitutional issues with the proposed amendment. Under Espling’s bill, such campaigns would need 31,942 signatures from District 1 and 29,181 signatures from District 2.

The National Rifle Association, Nestle Waters North America and Planned Parenthood have reported lobbying for and against the constitutional amendment. The NRA’s advocacy arm is urging residents to get their lawmakers to support Espling’s initiative, which has received resistance in the Senate and from Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs committee voted 12-1 last month in support of Espling’s bill, which awaits rounds of votes in the House and Senate. Democratic Rep. John Schneck voted against the bill and said it could decrease voter turnout, while it received support from Democrats such as committee House chair Louis Luchini, Rep. Craig Hickman, Rep. Thomas Longstaff and former Attorney General Michael Carpenter.

AP writers Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo.; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss.; Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb.; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; and James Nord in Pierre, S.D. contributed to this report.