AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Thursday in favor of a resolution that would make it harder to put a referendum question on the ballot, but the proposal still faces hurdles, including votes in the Senate as well as statewide voter approval, if it gets that far.

On the heels of an election last fall that saw five citizen-led referendum questions, the resolution would require petitioners to gather signatures more equally from each of Maine’s two congressional districts.

As it stands now, the number of signatures gathered must be greater than 10 percent of the total vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. Last year, that was about 67,000 signatures.

The resolution would mandate that signatures be obtained from 10 percent of voters in each of Maine’s two congressional districts. Based on voting results from the 2016 election, petitioners would need to collect about 39,000 signatures in the 1st District and 35,000 signatures in the 2nd District.

Assistant House Republican leader Eleanor Espling of New Gloucester, who sponsored the resolution, L.D. 31, said the citizen referendum process must be tightened.

“This allows citizens to take action while also bringing some balance to the process,” Espling said Thursday prior to the vote. “Let’s continue to see Maine people use a Maine process to make change … and not just let people gather signatures in southern Maine.”

The House vote was 106-39, which is more than the two-thirds majority needed for passage. The no votes were all from Democratic representatives.

However, the resolution still faces further votes in the Senate, where its passage is uncertain. Also, because the resolution requires a change to the state constitution, the measure – somewhat ironically – also would require voter approval. It would likely be put to voters in November if it clears the Legislature.

Maine’s citizen initiative process has long been used in various ways to force action on issues, often those that the Legislature either refused to tackle or failed to pass. In 2012, Maine became the first state to approve by referendum a law allowing same-sex marriage.

Last November, there were five separate ballot questions, four of which passed. All four of those questions – to legalize marijuana, adopt ranked-choice voting, increase the minimum wage and add a tax surcharge to high-income households to help fund public education – have consumed a great deal of the Legislature’s time.

Another citizen-led referendum – to create a casino in southern Maine – has been a thorn in lawmakers’ side, as well. The backers of that referendum, Shawn and Lisa Scott, failed in their first attempt to get it on the ballot in 2016 after thousands of signatures were deemed invalid. The group was successful this year, but their ballot question committee is now under investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission for violating campaign finance reporting rules, and lawmakers are considering unprecedented action to keep the question off the ballot.

Espling said the citizen initiative remains a vital tool for Mainers, but said she believes current law makes it too easy to gather signatures. She said referendum backers now can spend big sums of money to gather signatures and can spend time in bigger population areas like Portland. Many believe that’s what happened during signature gathering last year.

“In my opinion, it should be challenging to put something on the ballot,” she said.

Gathering 67,000 signatures isn’t a given, though. The Maine Republican Party last year quietly abandoned a signature-gathering effort for a referendum that sought to reduce income taxes and further reform welfare programs.

It was largely Republicans who pledged to tighten the referendum process after the November election. Making changes, though, is difficult because any alterations of the state constitution requires two-thirds support of lawmakers and statewide voter approval, as well.

Eric Russell can be contacted at:

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