Short Relief: Don't look now, but the next referendum battle is brewing

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I spent much of the last Election Day as I often do, working the East End School polling place on Munjoy Hill in Portland. For an off-year election, it was an unusually busy day there, as elsewhere around the state. About 1,600 people voted in person. As in past elections, a significant number of people registered the same day they voted.

About 250 of those who voted that day did not bother to vote the local municipal ballot at all, or wrote in obviously invalid votes for candidates like Homer Simpson. As they checked in during the day, more than one person told me that they did not need a municipal ballot at all.

District 1, Precinct 1 is a younger, Greener, more Democratic, more transient constituency than most of the state. It voted to sustain gay marriage by 73 percent, against TABOR II and the excise tax rollback by 69 percent and 72 percent respectively, and in favor of medical marijuana by 75 percent. It also voted to sustain school consolidation by 73 percent.

In these respects, except for the vote on gay marriage, the rest of the state went the same way as Munjoy Hill, albeit by lesser margins.

To my mind, the only surprise in the Munjoy Hill results was the vote in favor of school consolidation. I think of school consolidation as a fiscally conservative effort to try to reduce the cost of education by increasing efficiency and economies of scale.  But the battle lines on the issue were confusing. Consolidation was initiated by our Democratic governor and opposed by the conservative think-tank the Maine Heritage Policy Center. MHPC opposed consolidation on the grounds that it undermined local control.

My confusion was not confined to Munjoy Hill. Statewide, Maine voted socially conservative against gay marriage, but socially liberal in favor of medical marijuana. It voted fiscally conservative in favor of school consolidation, but fiscally liberal against a spending cap and against an excise tax cut.

How do you reconcile that? Yankee independence? After all, we did vote overwhelmingly for both Barack Obama and Susan Collins.

In the first instance, this election was dominated by national issues and influence. Most of all, with respect to Question 1 on gay marriage, but also, to a lesser extent, with respect to the tax and spending questions. Questions 2 and 4 attracted significant outside money (which goes further in Maine than elsewhere). They are what got people to the polls in record numbers (60 percent of registered voters) for an off-year election with no federal candidates on the ballot. They are why so many people were indifferent about local races and questions once they got to the polls.

The conservative position on the fiscal issues was hurt by the current recession. The big loser was the excise tax rollback, which lost by almost 50 percentage points. That surprised me, given how unpopular I thought the excise tax is. But the opposition was particularly effective with its ad featuring the tow-truck driving, working man who was offended by a big break for the fat cat’s new luxury car. The opposition was also fortunate that so much stimulus money was being spent repairing long-neglected roads at the same time that it was arguing that cutting the excise tax would sacrifice infrastructure.

Even so, my sense is that Mainers continue to be unhappy with Augusta’s tax and spending habits. They were just reluctant to tie the hands of government in the face of an economic crisis.

On the lead issue, Question 1, money was important but it wasn’t everything, as the opponents outspent the proponents of repeal. Maine, like the 31 other states that have considered the question so far, indicated that it is not yet ready for gay marriage.

In our case, the explanation may be as simple as our relatively high median age (according to 2004 data, we were the oldest state in the country at 40.7 years). Younger people seem to be more accepting of homosexuality and people seem to get more conservative as they grow older. But I would not underestimate the power of local resentment toward outside money trying to sway the vote.

In addition to positions on specific ballot questions, Mainers had views on the wisdom of allowing ballot questions at all. Some find the people’s initiative and veto provisions to be tiresome, if not lamentable detractions from representative government. Others see them as laudable, democratic mechanisms and structural checks on government.

However you see them, there are more on the way. Next up, a people’s veto of LD 1495, the revenue stabilization bill that is being portrayed as tax relief.

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hbfrank.JPGHalsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.