Your ability to initiate law changes is under scrutiny and may be limited by the Legislature. So you need to pay attention to this.

The Government Oversight Committee is investigating our public referendum process, in place for 109 years, concerned that special interest groups are abusing the process.

Rep. Jeff Pierce, the committee’s chairman, said he feels the process has been hijacked by wealthy special interest groups. He’s probably talking about “Shady Shawn” and his York County casino initiative.

But we voted that down with a record 83 percent no vote, so Shawn Scott’s millions didn’t really do much for him — except really please the TV station owners who got a lot of that money. Perhaps we can lure more millionaires to Maine for ballot measures in order to boost our economy.

Just kidding.

I used to be in the referendum business, collecting petition signatures and working on referenda on issues from moose hunting to Sunday sales. I worked with volunteers from special interest groups and for wealthy clients who were frustrated by legislative inaction.

For example, my firm collected signatures for an initiative to allow stores to be open on Sunday. Today most of you can’t imagine not being able to shop on Sundays, but we won a very narrow victory to make that happen. If I remember right, we won 51 percent to 49 percent.

Having worked on many ballot measure campaigns, both for and against, I can tell you that those who spend the most money don’t always win. The citizen initiative process remains a grass-roots powerhouse, where each of us has a chance to have a voice.

There is no doubt that wealthy groups are focused on trying to change our laws through ballot initiatives. Examples would be the referendum for universal background checks on gun sales, two bear hunting and trapping referenda, and the York casino initiative.

But guess what? They all lost, despite the millions of dollars that their sponsors spent trying to manipulate your vote.

I know for a fact that the defeat of the gun and bear referendums was driven by a strong grassroots effort, and not by TV ads. And all I can say is: thank you for paying attention to the facts and voting accordingly.

Of greater concern to me are actions by the governor and Legislature to deny the will of the people. After the Legislature enacted bills to expand Medicaid several times — only to be defeated by the governor’s veto, which was sustained by his cheering squad in the House — we got that done with a citizen’s initiative in November.

And shame on the governor for declaring he would still refuse to allow Medicaid to be expanded here. That lack of respect for our collective decision is deeply disappointing.

Instead of limiting our opportunities to initiate ballot measures, perhaps we should focus on limiting the ability of the governor and Legislature to overturn and repeal our decisions.

Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz expressed my view in a recent column when he wrote, “A word of advice to those in Augusta who fear that the citizen initiative process has run amok, that Maine needs to place higher hurdles between voters and their ballot. Don’t do it.

“There is no barrier you can erect that can’t be overcome by the next wheeler-dealer with money to burn. And more important, when all else fails, there is no force greater than the will of the people.”

That said, there are a few things we could do to strengthen this process.

First, we ought to make sure any ballot initiative has substantial interest all over the state. The Legislature postponed action this year on a constitutional amendment that would require that an equal percentage of signatures come from each of our two congressional districts. Even better would be a requirement that signatures come from each of our counties.

I would also lower the number of signatures required for true grassroots campaigns driven by volunteers, and increase that number for campaigns that pay people to collect signatures.

Our constitutional right to use the ballot to enact laws and to override legislative decisions is sacred here in Maine.

Starting in 1998, I advocated for changes in the process that would make it harder to get on the ballot.

Today, I have changed my mind, with full faith in the people of Maine to understand these ballot initiatives and to make wise decisions about them. We’ve done that for more than a century.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.