Capitol Notebook: Mainers face big issues in referendum votes

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Mainers could be legally smoking pot, giving themselves a pay raise, and navigating a new election system if several referendum questions are approved in the November election.

With a stagnant Legislature that has been resistant to changes supported by many Mainers, citizens have brought forward initiative petitions to put several key questions out to a referendum vote.

Question 1 would allow Mainers over age 21 to use and grow marijuana, and provide for licensing of retail marijuana facilities and social clubs. It would allow municipalities to prohibit or regulate retail facilities, and calls for a 10 percent tax on retail marijuana sales. The new law would be overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Some of the issues that have come up in other states, like Colorado, concern a potential increase in impaired and dangerous driving. The Maine Chiefs of Police, who oppose the bill, say it could increase unsafe driving, and that there is no way to test for impairment. The evidence from other states that have legalized is contradictory on the impact on driving safety.

Backers of Question 1 argue that police resources should be spent on dangerous drugs that kill, like heroin, rather than marijuana, which doesn’t.

Question 2 will add a 3 percent tax on income over $300,000 to support a fund for classroom education. The goal is to provide funding for the Legislature to finally meet its obligation, passed in an earlier referendum, to fund 55 percent of education costs. For example, someone with income of $300,000 would pay an additional 3 percent, or $3,000, on their income above the $200,000 level.

The debate here is between those who want to raise funds for education, and those who argue that increased taxes will drag down the economy.

A recent survey indicated that Maine is one of the worst states for teachers to succeed. Even Gov. LePage, who opposes this referendum, concedes that Maine needs to direct more money into teachers’ salaries, rather than administrative costs. Others point out that, like the original mandate to fund education at 55 percent, this could easily be ignored by the Legislature, which could spend it in other ways.

Question 3, like any gun control measure proposed in Maine, is likely to bring rural voters out of the woodwork in opposition. Backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control organization, the measure would expand background checks to all gun sales, with some exemptions for family members and emergency situations. It would require that sales between unlicensed gun owners take place at a licensed dealer, who would conduct the necessary background check.

The most popular referendum question, given a good shot at passage, is Question 4. It would raise the minimum wage in stages, starting in 2017, to $12 an hour by 2020. The wage rate would be indexed to inflation after that.

A provision to raise the wages for tipped employees to gradually match the minimum wage has drawn the most resistance, especially from restaurant owners, who unsuccessfully backed an alternative proposal that went nowhere in the Legislature.

A profound redesign of Maine’s voting system is proposed in Question 5, which would authorize a system of ranked choice voting.

For all state offices, as well as Congress, voters could rank candidates in order of preference and there would be rounds of ballot review until one candidate got a majority. If your first choice candidate does not get a majority in the first round, your second choice vote is considered in the next round, and so on until a candidate finally emerges with over 50 percent.

Backers argue that RCV will prevent a “spoiler effect” in a multi-candidate race, where candidates of similar ideology split a majority of votes, allowing a candidate opposed by the majority to win. The new system would see the most impact in elections for governor, where most recent governors have not won a majority.

Maine would be the first to use this procedure in statewide and national elections, and it presently contradicts a provision in the state Constitution that spells out that a plurality of voters can decide the election for governor.

An alternative to this method might be an actual run-off election between the top two vote-getters, which would have some expenses and organizational drawbacks, but which could focus attention on the two most popular candidates, and still yield a majority vote.

Voters should weigh this one very carefully, and think about how it could play out in elections. Some jurisdictions, like Burlington, Vermont, have repealed RCV and others have tried repeal efforts without success.

A bond issue authorizing $100 million for roads, bridges and other construction projects rounds out the ballot, and would bring $137 million in federal dollars to match.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.