AUGUSTA — A new report adds fuel to a growing worry that out-of-state cash has an outsize influence on what happens when voters head to the polls to decide ballot questions.
The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center weighed in on the initiative and referendum process Wednesday with a study of the spending deployed during the 50 ballot questions since 2009 that have asked voters to decide state policy on issues as far flung as hunting bears and legalizing marijuana.
Its research found more than $81 million was contributed to groups supporting or opposing those ballot questions — with 71 percent of the cash originating outside of Maine.
Those supporting ballot questions have spent much more than their opponents as well, said Jacob Posik, a policy analyst for the policy center.
“Well-funded special interests from out of state with no links to Maine, except money, have hijacked our referendum system to promote a national agenda,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
He described the level of spending from beyond Maine’s borders as gross.
Its report, The Will of the People?, is seen by some as the latest bid by conservatives to stymie ballot questions on which the center and its allies have often wound up on the losing side.
The Maine People’s Alliance, which has pushed successful referenda such as one in 2016 to raise the minimum wage, has often suggested the effort to clamp down on ballot questions is simply a response to conservatives coming up short on Election Day.
Mike Tipping, communications director the Maine People’s Alliance, said Wednesday the two most costly ballot questions in the period the report studied — one endorsing a casino, the other seeking more background checks for gun purchases — each failed. Money, apparently, is not everything.
Tipping said it is “pretty obvious” the new report is a response to conservatives losing when grassroots campaigns in Maine secure support for ballot questions that help ordinary Mainers, including last year’s referendum to expand Medicaid.
Matthew Gagnon, chief executive officer of the policy center, said it ought to be possible for everybody “to agree the system we have today is broken.”
It should not be so easy for outside groups to push an agenda and rely on the “gross financial disparity” to push through their notions of what’s good for Maine, Gagnon said.
Posik said those funding the questions are “not real Maine people,” but instead often wealthy individuals and mysterious groups in New York, Washington and California.
That raises the issue, he said, of whether the results of ballot questions are indicative of “the will of the people of Maine” or the special interests who take advantage of the state’s “incredibly lax requirements” to get something on the ballot.
The policy center’s suggestions on how to tackle the issue do not address spending, which courts have ruled is an element of free speech. Instead, its recommendations focus on making it harder to put a question on the ballot.
The report addresses ideas that have been tossed around in the Legislature for years that would make it more difficult to gather signatures and perhaps limit the topics that ballot questions can address.
Trahan said his group considers genuine grassroots effort “the purest form of democracy,” and expressed support for ballot questions as a concept.
He said he does not like the lack of transparency about who is pumping money into referenda each year, and the lopsided funding that often gives one side an advantage. He said the state might be better off opening the Clean Election system for those on each side of a ballot question.
The problem with Maine’s referendum process, Trahan said, is that outsiders see “a very weak and liberal referendum system” that they can use to get initiatives on the ballot as an experiment that they will not even have to live with since they reside elsewhere.
Tipping said, however, that ballot questions such as this year’s universal home care proposal are driven by grassroots needs in Maine not social schemers looking for a place to try something new.
Gagnon said it is clear ballot questions such as the universal home care proposal are a way to push the ideas of extremists that will have “tremendous problems” if passed by voters.
The home care measure, he said, has all the hallmarks of a concept printed up in the nation’s capital and foisted onto Maine.
Tipping said financial supporters of Question 1 this year are groups representing caregivers, workers and seniors — and more than 3,500 Mainers who have given an average of $24.
On the other side, Tipping said, are large donors, such as the Maine Association of Realtors and the Maine Bankers Association PAC, that he said profit from forcing seniors out of their homes due to a lack of home care. He called their willingness to spend money to defeat the ballot question “absolutely disgusting.”
Trahan said his organization hopes the new report, along with one expected soon from the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, “will trigger a robust public debate on a system that is important, but one in desperate need of reform.”
At a State House press conference Wednesday, Maine Heritage Policy Center Chief Executive Officer Matthew Gagnon, at the microphone, is flanked by David Trahan, left, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Jacob Posik, a policy analyst for the policy center. They discussed a new report looking into the use of money from outside Maine to influence the outcome of ballot questions since 2009. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)