AUGUSTA — The intellectual capacity of Maine voters became a subject of discussion for state lawmakers Wednesday as they heard a proposal to change the state’s constitution to disallow any citizen initiative that raised a tax or a fee.

The bill before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee would need the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and then ratification by a statewide vote before it became law. Supporters of the bill, including its sponsor, Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, say it is needed to stop well-heeled, out-of-state special interest groups from using Maine’s referendum process to increase taxes with ballot questions that voters don’t understand.

But opponents, including committee members, said the change is unneeded and may do more harm than good.

The bill is largely a response to a successful 2016 ballot box measure to tack a 3 percent surcharge on all household income over $200,000 as a way to increase public school funding. Although the referendum was approved by voters, the Legislature subsequently repealed the new law and erased the surcharge.

Timberlake said groups backing or opposing ballot measures in Maine spent some $81 million in the last eight years, with 71 percent of that money flowing into Maine from out of state.

“Tax policy is complex and difficult to understand,” Timberlake said. “It certainly can’t be boiled down to one-sentence, yes or no questions on a ballot. Beyond that it is a dangerous thing for the many to have the power to tax a few.” He said the best place to craft tax policy was at the Legislature and not through a “30-second sound bite and flashy commercials.”

But several members of the committee pushed back, saying that voters knew what they were doing and have both approved and rejected tax increases at the ballot box in recent years.

State Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, challenged Timberlake’s reasoning. He agreed that a lot of out-of-state money was pouring into Maine politics.

But Ackley said much of that money was spent on individual candidates’ campaigns by outside groups, or in the form of paid lobbying at the State House. He asked Timberlake whether he wanted to do something about that.

Ackley also challenged the notion that voters couldn’t figure out ballot questions or that complicated policy changes were too hard for many to understand. He noted that voters rejected a ballot measure last fall that would have raised taxes on high wage earners to fund a universal home care program for the elderly and disabled. He said voters also rejected requiring universal background checks for all gun sales, as well as a ban on allowing hunters to use bait and traps to kill bears.

“I would be much more comfortable with having the citizens of Maine discern what is truth and what is not in a citizens initiative process then have folks make a decision here in the committee rooms of Augusta,” Ackley said.

Linda Caprara, representing the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, backed Timberlake, saying changes to tax policy can have far-reaching implications, especially for businesses, that are not always spelled out clearly for voters. “Any time complicated tax policy is decided at the ballot box it risks unintended consequences,” Caprara said.

But again Ackley pushed back, saying, “I knock on thousands of doors every two years and it strikes me that if people don’t understand something they are asked to vote on they just don’t vote.”

A work session on the bill, where lawmakers will take a vote to recommend whether it should be approved by the full Legislature, has not yet been scheduled.

The committee also heard another proposal that would prohibit paying petitioners for each voter signature they gather. Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, the sponsor of the bill, said the measure does not prohibit organizations from paying people to collect signatures by the hour or by the day – only by the signature.

“The regular people of our state realize there is a serious credibility problem in the pay-per-signature practice, and we must address this serious issue in order to restore confidence and faith in the process,” Guerin said.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said courts in Maine other states have ruled against prohibitions on per-signature payments. Other lawmakers suggested the state might try to limit the amount paid per signature to as low as 1 cent per signature, but Flynn said the courts would probably not look at that favorably either.

“Something that low would be seen as banning it,” she said.

The proposal will also go to a work session for committee deliberations.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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