Maine’s first major policy referendum in several years is done, with a solid win for Question 1 on Nov. 3, restoring the Clean Election Act to something approaching its original form. Its supporters gambled by putting it on the ballot in an off-year election, yet it garnered 55 percent — the same as its original approval by referendum in 1996, a presidential year.

Maine’s initiative and referendum system has been around for 100 years, yet was used rarely until the 1970s, when liberal activists proposed legislation they felt was blocked by entrenched State House interests. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful — initiatives to abolish the Maine Milk Commission and create a Public Power Authority were defeated, as were three attempts to shut down the Maine Yankee nuclear plant — which, ironically, closed in 1998 because of large projected repair costs.

There was a lull in referendums during the administrations of Angus King— an era of political good feeling — but we’re again entering a period where, for better or worse, vital legislation will be considered not by the Legislature, but directly by the voters.

States that try to govern through referendum often regret it — as in California, where Republican-induced legislative gridlock prompted dozens of referendum proposals, some contradictory and several unconstitutional.

Maine is experiencing similar gridlock, with referendums a seemingly attractive alternative. Initiatives are best used, however, only when the Legislature resists demonstrated public priorities by rejecting legislation that would address them.

Two measures virtually certain to be on the 2016 ballot meet that test — raising the minimum wage and legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults. There’s been no state minimum wage legislative action for a decade, and voters clearly support a significant increase.

Marijuana legislation has similarly strong support, but hasn’t gained much traction with either party at the State House, despite Maine’s libertarian traditions. The merger of two competing campaigns behind a state group’s plan makes success likely; Maine would join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.

After that, it gets murky. Progressives believe ranked-choice voting, also known as “instant runoff,” would finally solve the problem of continually dividing their forces and allowing candidates such as Paul LePage to win with a minority of the vote.

Be careful what you wish for. Ranked-choice voting isn’t used in any other state, and it’s been adopted by only a few cities. Its sole appearance in Maine has been in the Portland mayoral race.

The danger for progressives is that, combined with restored public funding for gubernatorial elections, it could encourage more left-leaning candidates to enter the race, making it more, rather than less, likely for a single right-wing candidate to prevail, despite claims to the contrary. Divisions in Maine are usually on the left, not the right.

Another potentially iffy proposal is a measure raising income taxes on the wealthy to provide increased school funding. Similar plans have been touted since the 1990s, but none has yet made it to the ballot. It’s simply not possible to effectively supersede the Legislature’s most basic function of raising revenue and deciding where it should be spent. Attempts to limit taxes have regularly been voted down; would raising them do better?

Then there’s Gov. LePage’s referendum plan. Why the most powerful elected official in Maine needs referendums to advance his agenda is a curious question, since Democrats already have cooperated with his major objective of reducing the income tax — the only tax in Maine falling more heavily on the rich than the poor. Not content with reducing the tax below levels that can sustain basic state programs, LePage wants the top rate cut in half.

It’s unlikely to pass, but it shows how LePage seizes the initiative while Democrats backpedal. They have no agenda worthy of the name, as was vividly on display during the 2014 campaign.

Why not take a risk and, in the next party platform, get ahead of the curve? The last time Democrats did that, by supporting same-sex marriage, they lost one battle but won the war.

A new opportunity is marijuana, where LePage, in the face of all evidence and public opinion, insists on arresting more drug users. Canada’s Liberal Party, which just swept the national elections, has pledged to legalize marijuana, and will deliver. Their plank could be adopted, word for word, in Maine: “To ensure we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.”

It would sure beat waiting around for voters to lead the way.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Email at [email protected]

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