LEWISTON — The organizer of a people’s veto referendum aimed at repealing a law that allows cities and towns to pay General Assistance benefits to asylum-seeking immigrants for up to two years said he hopes to start collecting signatures soon.
But the question could face competition from another proposal for a ballot measure being sought by the Maine Republican Party that would ask voters in November 2016 to enact a series of welfare reforms, including a ban on General Assistance to asylum-seekers.
Stavros Mendros, a Republican and former state lawmaker from Lewiston, said Monday he heard back from Maine Secretary of State’s office on the proposed wording for the citizen’s veto question that, if approved, would overturn LD 369, a new law that allows eligible legal nonresidents to apply for and collect General Assistance benefits while they await work permits from the federal government.
But Mendros said he intended to take the necessary steps to have the state issue the petitions he would use to gather signatures from Maine voters.
Mendros said he wants to start gathering signatures with volunteers during the Great Falls Balloon Festival this weekend but said he was also working with the Maine GOP on its ballot measure.
The earliest the citizens’ veto question could go before voters is June 2016, but if Mendros and his supporters are able to collect the signatures of 61,123 Maine voters prior to Oct. 14, the date the new law becomes effective, the new law would be put on hold until after the June vote.
Otherwise, the law will go into effect and would have to be repealed. either by the Legislature or a separate ballot question that would go before voters in June 2016, at the earliest.
Mendros said he intended to accept the question either Monday or Tuesday but may also suspend signature collection later if he decides to focus on the GOP ballot question. He said the cost of running a successful signature drive in Maine is about $100,000 and he would be competing for those donation sources with the GOP on its ballot question.
“I’m having conversations with people about it,” Mendros said.
He said he prefers going with the people’s veto because the city of Lewiston is facing about $165,000 a year in costs from paying General Assistance to immigrants who are awaiting work permits.
“I prefer going with the citizens’ veto because it more directly affects us in the city of Lewiston, where everybody else wants to go the other way with the ballot question (in 2016) because it would affect the whole state,” Mendros said.
He also said that it would be very difficult to collect the signatures necessary by Oct. 14, if he didn’t launch the gathering effort within the next week.
“There just won’t be enough time,” he said.
Mendros said he’s raised about a third of the estimated $100,000 he believes it would take to mount a successful signature-gathering campaign.
Meanwhile, Jason Savage, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said a group of party executives and volunteers were busy drafting the party’s proposal for the ballot in 2016 and the details of what they would be seeking would be available soon.
Savage said the party’s proposal would entail a more comprehensive approach to welfare reform and would likely include elements from several bills state Republican lawmakers were unable to advance in the Legislature.
“We have a very broad group of people working on the details of our plan right now,” Savage said. “I can’t tell you exactly when (details will be released) but it won’t be too long. I think it’s fair to say the welfare reform policy and proposal we are looking at will be substantive. It will be more than just one narrow issue.”
For the Maine GOP to get their question on the 2016 fall ballot, they would have until February 2016 to collect signatures from valid voters.
Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Mendros has very little time to collect the signatures he would need. Previous efforts, which required fewer signatures, took 30 days longer than the time now available to Mendros.
“It’s not impossible,” Dunlap said Monday, “but it would be unprecedented if they were able to pull it off, especially with only volunteers.”