Roger Labbe, left, plays bridge in the Senior Room at the Lewiston Memorial Armory Tuesday with Fred Letourneau and Nancy Farmer. Labbe said he voted for Question 2 in November, which was passed by voters but rejected by state lawmakers.

Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, said Republicans repealed the 3 percent income tax surcharge in Question 2 because it would be bad for Maine, driving higher income people from the state.

LEWISTON — Roger Labbe and thousands of other Mainers voted for Question 2 in November, a referendum that passed statewide by about 10,000 votes. The tally was 383,428 in favor, 373,848 opposed.

The referendum called for the creation of a 3 percent surcharge on annual incomes over $200,000; that money was to be dedicated to K-12 public education.

“If people earn $200,000 or more, they could pay a little more for education,” said Labbe, a retired teacher and Lewiston Senior Citizens past president.

But, as of July 4, Question 2 is no more.

It was repealed in the state budget after Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans insisted the budget not include the 3 percent tax surcharge.

That’s not right, Labbe said.

“It was passed by the majority of voters. Now it’s taken out of the budget. Something’s wrong with that picture.”

This year was different

In most years, any referendum approved by Maine voters is treated in the State House with high respect, a hands-off approach, experts said.

State lawmakers have always had the ability to modify or repeal citizen-initiated referendums, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. “But they have not done that.”

Legislators have tweaked and even stalled citizen initiatives, but they’ve never ignored or killed voters’ directives, he said.

This year marked a new era.

“I can’t remember a case when a referendum has been disregarded,” said Jim Melcher, a University of Maine at Farmington political science professor. He noted that the Question 2 referendum wasn’t an advisory, or a June bond decision where there is a light voter turnout.

“It was a presidential election. There is no higher voter turnout,” Melcher said. It raises questions of whether voters will be more skeptical about whether their votes matter, he said.

Question 2 was brought to the ballot by the statewide teachers union, the Maine Education Association. MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the repeal was an insult to Maine voters.

“If people are going to take the time to go and vote on a referendum, the referendum passes, then the referendum is tossed out by the Legislature, what does that say about the value of a vote?”

People who vote for a referendum expect the Legislature to respect the voters, she said. “Clearly that’s not what happened.” While opponents said the law would hurt Maine’s economy by driving higher-income earners out of Maine, her campaign insisted more money targeted for education would be an economic boom.

Libby: GOP didn’t care law was passed by voters

In the new two-year budget, lawmakers did add $162 million more for K-12 education, about half of the $320 million the referendum was projected to raise.

Kilby-Chesley said the referendum identified a funding stream for bettering education in Maine, as opposed to taking money away from other programs funded by the state’s general fund.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said that during budget negotiations, “Republicans demanded Question 2 be eliminated. Democrats were saying we want the current law,” he said, adding there were “bizarre negotiations.”

Republicans didn’t care that the Question 2 was passed by voters, Libby said. “They argued that doctors and lawyers would move out of state.” Democrats held the line on Question 2 for much of the session “trying to defend the will of the voters,” Libby said. “Republicans categorically said ‘We want it repealed.’”

As the weeks rolled on and a state shutdown neared, Democrats didn’t have the votes. They didn’t want a state shutdown, Libby said.

“We were extraordinary disappointed,” he said, adding that in upcoming elections voters may question whether their votes matter. When voting for their next legislator, voters should ask: Will the candidate respect the will of voters? he said.

GOP: Repeal ‘the right thing to do’

House Republican Leader Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said an overwhelming majority of voters in Republican districts opposed Question 2.

“In repealing Question 2, House Republicans were only reflecting the will of their constituents,” Fredette said in a statement to the Sun Journal. “And, as important, it was also the right thing to do.”

Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, whose district supported Question 2, said he can understand how some voters may feel unhappy about the repeal. But, if left intact it would have done more harm than good, he said.

Many voters who supported it wouldn’t be subjected to the additional 3 percent tax since their income is below $200,000.

“I met with five business leaders in Lewiston-Auburn, two had manufacturing facilities in other states,” Bickford said. “They told me they were thinking of moving their facility to the another state.” If the referendum had stayed, “it would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Among the opponents to Question 2 was the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Dana Connors said he would not consider what legislators did to Question 2 a repeal, but “more of a modification.”

During the campaign the chamber conducted polling that indicated Mainers wanted more money for education and for the state to fund 55 percent of education, as is already required by Maine law but not enforced.

Connors said the Chamber supports those goals as well, but noted that lawmakers this session added more money for education. He said voters may not have been aware of how the new tax created by the referendum would hurt Maine.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to make laws that help the economy, he said. “It’s not a disrespect shown for the public vote by making it work by modifying it.”

State Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said that during budget negotiations, “Republicans demanded Question 2 be eliminated. Democrats were saying we want the current law (approved by voters in referendum).”

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