The Food Sovereignty Constitutional Amendment

An almost biennial feature of Maine elections is a vote on a constitutional amendment. This year voters have an opportunity to amend the 201 year old document for the 175th time. The topic: An unusual one as its proponents seek to make the state the first in the country to put a “Right to Food” provision in a state constitution. As with the initiative on the CMP Corridor each side has a different interpretation of what it will mean. and the extent of its reach.

The proposed food amendment also stands out for another reason: if ratified it would mark only the fourth substantive addition to the state’s Declaration of Rights – the state’s equivalent of the federal Bill of Rights. This portion of Maine’s constitution, mostly copied from the 1780 Massachusetts John Adams Constitution, consists of 25 provisions that enshrine such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and jury trials.

The first substantive revision was a 1964 amendment that added a due process and equal protection clause, one that echoed the post Civil War Era 14th amendment.

The most recent was a 1987 amendment put forth by gun rights advocates. It deleted “for the common defense” as a perceived precondition for what amounts to the state’s version of the federal Second Amendment. This was designed to overrule a Maine court decision that such rights might only be applicable in a military context. 2

The next year, 1988, saw ratification of an amendment that rendered the Constitution gender neutral.

Will Food Sovereignty be next? We will soon find out.

The Hundred Million Dollar Highway Bond Issue

One reason Maine has had so many constitutional amendments is its policy on borrowing. Like most states it has for nearly all its history imposed significant obstacles before long term debt can be authorized. The precautions arose out of scandals that besieged a number of state governments including the financing of New York’s Erie Canal.

An 1847 amendment to Maine’s constitution went so far as outlawing borrowing altogether. “The credit of the state shall not be loaned directly or indirectly in any case and the legislature shall not create any debts or debt.”

Each episode of borrowing from then on until it was repealed in 1950 required a separate constitutional amendment.

During the more than ten decades that a constitutional amendment was required to borrow money a variety of expenditures were approved. Here is a glimpse of a few that stand out: 3

* The first was the 1868 $3.5-million authorizing the state to reimburse local municipalities for debts they incurred in helping fund the Civil War;

* The next was in 1919 for a State highway and bridge construction bond. This was followed by similar transportation borrowing approved four times between 1921 and 1935. The latter had the now familiar inducement of attracting federal matching funds;

* Specific, largely local bridge projects were also approved despite the need to win a state-wide mandate; these included Bath’s Carlton Bridge across the Kennebec in 1925, the 1935 bond for the half mile long Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge and the 1950 vote on the Veterans Bridge joining Portland and South Portland.

Overall, twelve borrowing amendments in this 103 year period when the constitutional requirement was on the books, were approved. Five were defeated. Among the latter were two proposals for veterans bonuses, one in 1921 for those from the Spanish American conflict and another in 1946 for those from World War II.

Despite the mid-20th century repeal of the need to amend the constitution to borrow money, proponents of such spending still have to run an almost identical gauntlet: namely, drumming up two thirds support in both House and Senate and ratification by voters. Because neither party since the legislature elected in 1962 has commanded such super majorities, just getting out of the legislative gate to put a bond in play for voter approval has required some pride swallowing on all sides.

Until a few years ago the verdict voters rendered on bond issues was a barometer of the state’s economy. In a financially buoyant 1988 all six were approved. 4 In the Recession years of 1990 through 1992 sixteen were defeated and only six won voter support.

Voter temperament since the mid 1990’s has offered no such parallels. Seventy-five of the last 78 issues since 1995 have been approved. Those approved included all six bond issues in the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The three that were defeated, including two on U-Maine and Community College systems and one on prisons, were overthrown in years of relative economic prosperity.

It’s also a likely bet that this year’s $100-million highway bonds, always a popular item in any era, will also be approved.

Why the November Date and What Makes This Year Different:

Timing of the November vote traces its roots to a federal law passed in 1845. That’s when Congress decreed a uniform date for holding presidential elections. It’s the first Tuesday after the first Monday. That explains why we never have such an election on the day immediately following Halloween! The Congressional mandate thus requiring presidential elections to occur on that date influenced most states to hold its elections for state-wide offices at the same time. Maine was one of last holdouts in this when after 1958 it shifted its state elections from the second Monday in September to the date we have now. Louisiana flirted with other dates a bit longer than we did.

The November vote in Maine has also almost always occurred in Standard Time. An exception occurred in 1944 when the nation went on year round DST as a temporary Wartime efficiency measure.

The next extended Daylight election occurred in 2010, the so-called Tea Party Off Year Election. That occurred because of a 2007 federal law that moved the start of 5 DST from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November.

Ordinarily – because six out of the seven possible dates of our November election will fall after the first Sunday in that month – November voting occurs in the darker Standard Time period.

Not so this year. The first Tuesday after the first Monday means that the clocks won’t fall back until November 7th. Accordingly, our election date is as early as it can be. For only the third time in Maine history our November election will have an hour more of evening sunlight, sunset occurring at 5:30 instead of 4:30 p.m.

All the more reason to seize an opportunity to vote on the issues at hand this year.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail [email protected]

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