The Maine Republican Party has made itself the public face of a referendum drive to make an array of changes in state welfare programs and income tax rates. But digital fingerprints in a copy of the proposal show that senior officials in the Department of Health and Human Services and the LePage administration were deeply involved in writing it.

The fingerprints, known as metadata, were in a copy of the ballot question obtained by the Portland Press Herald that circulated Sept. 11 among leaders of the Maine Republican Party, including chairman Rick Bennett and senior members of the LePage administration, including the governor’s chief of staff, John McGough. The document was sent to recipients’ private email addresses, including state employees and lawmakers who have been assigned government addresses.

The metadata, which provides a digital record of where the document orginated and traveled, shows that the original document was created on a computer or software – or both – licensed to the state of Maine. It also shows that the document was originally authored by Nick Adolphsen, the director of government relations and policy for DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. The document was later edited by Holly Lusk, the senior health policy advisor for Gov. Paul LePage.

It’s unclear whether the proposal was drafted and altered during state office hours. Neither Adolphsen nor Lusk responded to questions about the creation and distribution of the document.

State regulations prohibit the use state resources for political activity. However, the regulations generally define political activity in relation to candidate campaigns, not ballot campaigns. For example, the law prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in political activity “when the employee is on duty” or in a “state-owned or leased work space. Political activity is defined as working for the “election or defeat” of candidates for federal, state, county or municipal office – not ballot questions.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees Maine elections, said the law is “nebulous” when applied to ballot campaigns. He noted that in 2014, employees of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife used state resources to campaign against a referendum question to ban the use of bait, trapping and dogs to hunt bears.

Supporters of the referendum filed a lawsuit over the state workers’ activities, but a Maine Superior Court justice ruled in favor of the IFW employees, saying they were exercising their First Amendment free speech rights.

Still, Dunlap said, political activity by state employees may not sit well with the public.

“It may leave a mal aroma in the nostrils of the public to know that taxpayer-funded equipment and employees in the governor’s office were engineering this ballot question,” he said. “It looks bad and smells bad.”

Jonathan Wayne, director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said “the issue of public employees using state resources for election activity” is not within his agency’s jurisdiction.

Efforts to either ban the use of state resources on ballot questions or require state agencies to disclose it were defeated during the last legislative session. One bill, L.D. 298, was proposed by the Ethics Commission in the aftermath of the bear baiting controversy. It would have required state agencies that provide services to a political action committee or ballot question committee to report the activity as a political contribution, just as corporations and nonprofits currently do.

The bill was passed by the House and Senate but vetoed by LePage, who argued in his veto message that such activity served the public. The House overrode the governor’s veto, but the Senate sustained it.

A separate bill would have prohibited state employees from engaging in political activity. It was also defeated.

The involvement of LePage officials in crafting the welfare and tax question is unlikely to surprise many in the State House. The proposal is essentially a compilation of the gubernatorial initiatives that LePage has been unable to push through the Legislature.

However, some may criticize the Republican Party’s unusual decision to devote both manpower and resources to ballot initiatives rather than exclusively focusing on electing more Republicans to the Legislature. Some of that criticism has come from Republicans, who worry that the governor – who continues to wage war on Republican legislators – has co-opted the party machine.

Lance Dutson, a longtime Republican activist who is frequently at odds with LePage, attempted to make that point on Monday in a pair of tweets. The purpose of the referendum, he wrote, is to divert resources from legislative elections.

“It’s a hostile act” by the party and LePage to threaten Republican legislators, he wrote.

Bennett, however, has defended the referendum questions, saying that the issues – welfare changes and tax cuts – are two issues on which Republicans agreed in a tumultuous legislative session.

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