A unanimous Maine Supreme Court ruling has cleared the way for Mainers to make the final decision on a citizen’s initiative referendum. An Act to Create a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which will appear on November ballots in Maine, limits government spending increases at all levels in the state and requires voter approval of tax and fee increases.
“Foes of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights attempted to disqualify this petition on a technicality because they know that the public will support this sensible measure,” said Mary Adams of Garland, lead plaintiff in the court case and organizer behind the petition drive. “We were confident that the Supreme Court would allow Mainers to vote on this proposal and are relieved to have this matter behind us.”
Controversy over Signatures
The referendum was initially delayed by confusion over the petition deadline.
In order for a citizen’s initiative referendum to qualify for the ballot, petitioners are required by the Maine Constitution to submit 50,519 valid signatures from registered Maine voters (10 percent of the total number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election).
By statute, the deadline for filing signatures for an initiative destined for the November ballot was October 21, 2005, one year after the date of the first signature collected. Adams submitted 54,127 signatures on that date.
Controversy arose when Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D) accepted 4,024 signatures that Adams submitted three days later, on Monday, October 24. Those additional signatures proved necessary due to invalidated signatures in the original filing.
Political activist Kathleen McGee, a Taxpayer Bill of Rights opponent, challenged in Kennebec County Superior Court the legality of Dunlap’s decision to accept the additional signatures. Superior Court Justice Donald Marden affirmed McGee’s contest, ruling Dunlap erred in accepting the additional petitions.
Adams’ attorney, Michael Duddy, subsequently appealed Marden’s ruling to the Maine Supreme Court.
The statutory deadline of October 21, 2005 conflicted with the deadline set forth in article IV, section 18 of the Maine Constitution. The constitutional provision states petitions must be “filed in the office of the Secretary of State by the hour of 5:00 p.m., on or before the 50th day after the date of convening of the Legislature in first regular session or on or before the 25th day after the date of convening of the Legislature in second regular session.” In the case of the Adams petition, the constitutionally established filing deadline was January 30, 2006.
The Maine Supreme Court ruled on May 4 the petition filing deadline established in the Maine Constitution took precedence over the statutory deadline, overturning the lower court ruling.
“Nothing in the [Maine] Constitution requires that petitions be filed within a year of the date of the first signature or invalidates an entire batch of petitions merely because some signatures are too old,” Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley wrote in the majority decision. “Rather, the [Maine] Constitution leaves initiative proponents free to file petitions when they choose, understanding that any signatures that are more than one year old at filing will not be counted toward their goal.
“When viewed in light of the constitutional scheme,” Saufley continued, “the statutorily imposed one-year deadline for filing petitions is a substantial restriction, directly inconsistent with the circulator’s more flexible options provided by the [Maine] Constitution.”
Could Be Defining Issue
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights currently is the only referendum question appearing on the November ballot in Maine. Political observers believe the measure will be a defining issue in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races.
There are currently 14 registered gubernatorial candidates. Incumbent Gov. John Baldacci (D) will face challenges from a Republican, a Green, and at least one Independent. In the legislative races, every seat in the Maine House of Representatives and the Maine Senate is up for re-election. Democrats hold a one-seat plurality in the House and a three-seat majority in the Senate.
“This will be a public debate about whether Maine people want to continue the tax-and-spend status quo policies of the last 40 years, or move Maine towards economic opportunity and prosperity,” said Bill Becker, president of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which drafted the model legislation on which Adams’ petition is based.
Jason A. Fortin ([email protected]) is director of communications/projects manager at the Maine Heritage Policy Center.