Three referendum questions that sponsors hoped to get on the November ballot will instead appear, most likely, in 2023, since signature-gathering efforts fell short. Overall, the delay may provide needed breathing room.

Maine has been in full policy-by-referendum mode since 2016, when no fewer than five major questions appeared, and things haven’t gotten a lot easier for voters-as-legislators since then.

The most important pending question is the one you’ve probably heard least about: an effort by a consortium of providers and public health groups to bring a version of “Medicare for All” to Maine.

There’s a firm belief that one state, acting alone, can’t provide the kind of universal, government-organized health care system that every other major democracy in the world — and quite a few autocracies — already has.

Yet the lack of any progress at the federal level since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which was at best a partial step toward a universal system, makes the states’ role as “laboratories of democracy” especially important.

The proposed initiative gives plenty of room for the Legislature to devise plans, and a more sympathetic administration in Washington would make a huge difference. John Baldacci’s signature Dirigo Health plan in 2003 got no help from the George W. Bush administration, and Vermont’s later attempt at a universal system suffered a similar fate.

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A vote by a single state could attract overdue attention to the multiple failures of a privately dominated system of huge insurers, drug companies and enormous numbers of “middlemen” far more adept at producing profit for their owners than providing health care for the American people.

The other two measures ­— to expropriate the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant, Maine’s two private electric utilities, and to ban “foreign entities” from contributing to referendum campaigns — have significant flaws.

Both are essentially outgrowths of Question 1 from last November, which attempts to cancel the power line already being constructed to Canada.

The “Our Power” campaign is certainly ambitious. It would remove the investor-owned status of the utilities by buying them, and govern through an elected seven-member board.

Actual management would be carried out by a contracted operator which, presumably, wouldn’t replace the entire current workforce.

The cost, according to CMP, would be $13.5 billion; electric utilities have lots of assets. By contrast, if you add together all the state’s current liabilities — voter-approved bonds, pension obligations, Maine Housing, the university system, the Turnpike Authority, and more — it’s less than $8 billion: by any measure, a huge undertaking.

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The “foreign entity” question arose because Hydro-Quebec was a major funder of the “No on 1” campaign.

It’s a curious way to look at it. Like it or not, Hydro-Quebec has been supplying electricity to New York and Vermont for decades, and Massachusetts was trying to get aboard, with the line running through Maine.

All these connections are part of a regional grid providing the real test of whether we will succeed, or fail, to “decarbonize” the economy to stave off a global warming disaster. Hydro-Quebec’s power would unquestionably have displaced fossil fuel burning, New England’s leading source.

What we missed about Question 1 was that it had relatively little to do with environmental questions and was much more a clash of corporate titans: Hydro-Quebec and Avangrid, CMP’s parent, on one side, and NextEra, headquartered in Florida, on the other.

NextEra wanted the Massachusetts contract Hydro-Quebec got, and fought ceaselessly against it with regulators, the courts of Maine and Massachusetts, and finally with Question 1.

It might have been better for all concerned if Massachusetts had chosen a mix of hydropower, solar and wind — NextEra is a major supplier of the latter two — but it didn’t.

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The irony of the “foreign entity” referendum is that Hydro-Quebec’s approach backfired. It was so incoherent it probably cost more votes for “no” than it gained. In retrospect, it was CMP’s unpopularity that drove results as much as any serious consideration of the issues involved.

Would it be fair to allow U.S.-based multinationals to participate in Maine referendums while banning a Canadian firm whose project was slated for cancelation? Voters may decide that, too.

Meanwhile, Question 1 sits before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which is taking a leisurely approach and probably won’t decide its constitutionality before summer. The flaws that led the court to remove the 2020 version of Question 1 from the ballot haven’t necessarily been fixed in the new edition.

It would be good to get one referendum resolved before we start debating its progeny. Deciding on Maine’s governor and who controls Congress should be enough this time around.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback.  He welcomes comment at [email protected]


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