Let’s say you’re a voter in a state that has all kinds of problems — a drug epidemic, the second-worst economy in America, population decline. A state like Maine, for instance.
And let’s say, in your state, your government hasn’t solved these problems — which will never go away without action. Democrats win, then lose, Republicans win, then lose, but regardless of the outcome of elections, the problems persist. You hear a lot of bluster and drama on the news, but at the end of the day, your state still has the same big problems it has had for years.
As a voter, your support of one team or another has become futile. So what do you do?
Well, in Maine in 2016, voters figured out how to cut their state government out of the problem-solving business altogether.
While Gov. Paul LePage was hanging legislators in effigy from Christmas trees in the State House and warning Mainers of the perils of interracial coupling, Maine voters were quietly deciding that an intervention was necessary.
And when then-Speaker of the House Mark Eves recused himself from relevance by taking LePage to court for being mean, Maine voters realized they were on their own.
Enter the Citizen’s Initiative process.
Maine voters realized that nothing productive was going to happen in a State House governed by a crackpot governor and a rudderless, weak opposition party. So they took matters into their own hands.
Hundreds of thousands of Maine voters signed petitions to put major policy decisions in the hands of the citizen’s referendum process. Drug legalization, gun control, tax policy, education funding, minimum wage, and even our voting system itself went out to popular vote in November.
Mainers took this policy coup seriously, too: more people voted on these questions than on the candidates’ campaigns — even the presidential race.
Now some in Augusta — including the same recalcitrant governor who caused much of the gridlock in the first place — want to make it harder to put policy issues out to referendum. There couldn’t be a more thick-headed response to the 2016 election.
It’s true that referendums are a lousy way to make policy. We are a representative republic, after all. But voters sent a clear message to policymakers in Augusta: Do your jobs, or we’ll do them for you.
And now that Maine people see that policy can be managed at the referendum level, you can bet they’ll do it again if necessary. The governor and legislators on both sides of the aisle should take this as an institutional rebuke.
Elected officials in Augusta are right to fear the referendum process, because it marginalizes their importance and end-runs their agendas. But the correct response to the proliferation of referendums is not to restrict access to them, but to actually accomplish something so referendums aren’t necessary.
The era of LePage has rendered the art of dealmaking (in other words, getting anything done) in Augusta virtually extinct. Fear of retribution has caused even Democrats to disengage from the process, holding tight in partisan corners instead of tackling the big issues our state faces. Nothing happens because the governor can’t get everything he wants, and when his tantrums grind the process to a halt, the rest of Augusta stands idly by in disbelief.
Voters sent a signal last year that this paralysis is not acceptable. The troubles that we’ve all been discussing for a decade now continue: Our kids are moving away, our taxes are too high, our traditional industries are faltering, opioid abuse is running out of control, and rural Maine is collapsing under a blend of all these factors. Six years of LePage’s dysfunctional government hasn’t fixed a single one of these dynamics, and two more years won’t either.
Republicans and Democrats need to move Maine out of this rut and put some actual reform policies in place. There is consensus on what the problems are; what is missing is motivation. Lawmakers need to reassert their control over the process and work each day with the understanding that they are only as useful as the product they produce. Maine voters demand real, tangible results, and the path around a paralyzed legislature is now clearly marked.