The 2016 election is more than a year away, but it’s already shaping up to be historic.

Maine Republicans have announced plans to put one or maybe two questions on the ballot: one to eliminate the state income tax and the other to curtail spending on social services.

In addition, two separate questions on the ballot seek to legalize recreational marijuana use, and one that question would reform state elections, including party primaries, by instituting ranked-choice voting in all state races.

There also might be a referendum to increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour, raising it $1 per year until it reaches $12. After that, it would be tied to inflation.

And Maine voters also will elect all 186 members of the Maine House and Senate, but so what? With so many major issues being decided by popular referendum, there won’t be much left for any of the legislators to do.

Maybe Maine should have a referendum about whether it should do all of its governing by referendum. Then when someone files a bill to make Labrador retrievers the state dog or to reduce sentences for some classes of drug offenses, we can wait until Election Day and let the people decide. It would be like one big town meeting.

That’s not practical, but some of these referendums are not necessarily about making sensible laws.

The bill to eliminate the income tax by statute would have dubious value as a law. It would rob the state treasury of nearly half of the $6.3 billion it takes to run the state for two years and replace it with … nothing.

But it makes for a great campaign platform. Rhetoric would soar, offering plenty of opportunities for politicians to pontificate about tax freedom and putting money back in people’s pockets. But without massive increases to property and sales taxes or massive cuts to state schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other social services, the budget will not balance.

Even Gov. Paul LePage, who counts himself as an enemy of the income tax, has never submitted a budget that did not rely heavily on the income tax, or even one that would have spent less overall than the one that preceded it.

If Republicans hate the income tax so much, why didn’t they try to eliminate it in three of the last five years, when they had the governor and at least one house of the Legislature in their control?

It’s one thing for a group of voters to put a proposal on the ballot when they think the Legislature is not listening, but it’s another entirely when a political party, which has been setting the agenda in Augusta, resorts to this kind of approach.

So why bother spending all the time and money it takes to put one of these questions on the ballot?

The answer may be in last year’s unsuccessful attempt to outlaw some bear-hunting techniques. According to some analysis of exit polling data, bear hunters and their supporters turned out in greater numbers than might have been expected in a typical year, contributing to a good year for conservatives, including LePage.

It may be that the state Republican Party is looking for ways to keep its voters enthusiastic in a presidential year, when Democrats tend to vote in greater numbers than at other times.

Now the political operatives will have to sort through all the permutations of these overlapping questions. Would a pro-marijuana, anti-income tax Trump voter — assuming he runs as an independent — tick the box for a Republican House candidate? How about an anti-pot, pro-minimum wage Clintonista? Or a ranked-choice-loving, tax-reforming, cannabis consumer?

Maine should not go down this route. A representative democracy that governs through compromise is better than government by referendum. Voters should pay more attention to who’s on the ballot than what.


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