If you want to see what’s wrong with Maine’s citizen-initiative process, look right here.

According to a report released by Spendthrift Politics on June 19, 2017, in the Maine 2016 referendum cycle, “nonresidents ponied up $17.3 million (of the total $22 million spent on five different questions) or over four times as much as in-state donors.” In addition, the report states, “non-individuals (special interest groups) supplied just under $20 million, compared to only $1.9 million from individuals.”

You might ask why so many people from away, who have no stake in the passage of a Maine law, care so much about Maine. To answer that question, I will use the progressive Maine People’s Alliance as an example, as they are the most effective organization in Maine transforming out-of-state money into political power.

Organizations like the MPA — and there are more — register with the IRS as a C-4 nonprofit. Under federal law, they then can shelter or hide their individual donors, and as a result, funnel dark money from all over the country into initiatives and elections here in Maine. Groups like the MPA have powerful allies or partner organizations, like the AFL-CIO, who recently unionized the MPA. Using these national contacts, they can connect with like-minded progressives from all over the country. According to IRS form 990, in 2014, the MPA collected $1.4 million, and we don’t know who or where it came from.

The dark money the organization solicits flows into their Maine headquarters, where the MPA hire staff and pay dozens of what they call “grassroots organizers.” Far from it, they are paid canvassers that work at the will of the MPA on initiatives, legislative races and to target legislators who do not carry the MPA’s partisan torch. This ready-made political machine is used to collect signatures for initiatives, and when the Legislature is in session, the MPA uses their paid canvassers to keep Democrats and Republicans in line; if a certain legislator is not voting the way the MPA wants, they send in the troops to do misleading literature drops and let the legislators know they are watching. Because of weak disclosure laws, the MPA does not have to report this type of “indirect lobbying.”

The MPA is not alone; other organizations use similar, ready-made political machines to do their so-called grassroots canvassing and petition work. Some just use high-paid political operatives from prestigious law firms such as Verrill Dana and Bernstein Shur to organize and administer campaigns. As a way to distance themselves from the messy petition process, they hire consultants such as PCI Consulting out of California or Field Works out of Washington, D.C., to manage unruly paid circulators. As soon as they qualify for the ballot, these same hired guns are tasked with raising millions from out of state. Their spokesmen are almost always well-paid political insiders, hired not because they believe in the cause of the day, but because they are smooth operators with deep political connections.

Some groups who use the citizen-initiative process in this manner have mastered the art of political manipulation; consequently, exaggerating the facts, misleading voters and exploiting weak circulator laws is commonplace. Some out-of-state campaigns ignore the state constitutional requirement to use registered Maine voters when collecting signatures. Instead they use what they call “witnesses,” usually college kids or people they hire off the street to accompany their non-resident circulators. They claim if they watch the non-resident circulator, it somehow transfers their right to circulate and satisfies the constitutional residency requirements; that’s hogwash. When petitioners are paid as much as $10 per signature and one petitioner can circulate for several campaigns at the same time, the incentive to use shady tactics to convince Maine voters to sign petitions is overwhelming.

The Maine referendum system has been hijacked by dark money from out of state; as a result, groups have figured out how to use national money to push their agenda and at the same time make a lot of money doing it. At the very least, we need referendum reform that makes our system honest, transparent and more accountable to Maine voters.

We could start this legislative session by ending the practice of shielding C-4 individual donors, requiring petitioners to disclose on their petition they are a paid circulator, adopting tougher regulations, penalties and enforcement for petition circulators, and, finally, requiring organizations like the MPA who use indirect lobbying to report their political activity, so Maine people are better informed when they sign petitions and vote on election day.

David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

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