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July 15, 2014 at 12:00 am

Think Twice Before Signing Citizens Initiative Petition

It seems innocent enough to sign a petition to allow a group to try to create a law through a citizen initiative.  After all, the signature simply gives petition supporters "their day in court" so to speak.  The devil, however, is always in the details, and when you sign a petition to put an initiative on the ballot, those details are not always evident. 

The first question one might ask is this – why is this issue going through the initiated petition process?   Why isn't this being submitted as a bill in the Legislature, to go through the regular legislative process of presentations and debates, in formal and informal committee sessions, and House and Senate floor votes?  These open debates often result in amendments to clarify and balance the proposal.  A vast majority of legislation moves smoothly through that process.  An initiated petition doesn't benefit from that give and take, and cannot be amended to make it more workable, more palatable or more understandable.  Initiated petitions are presented to the Legislature for passage as presented, or to be passed on to the voters for a statewide vote where they are either passed as presented, or defeated.  Amendments are not part of the process for initiated petitions.

At some polling locations during the June primary elections, people were collecting signatures for an initiated petition to amend Maine's campaign finance reporting and disclosure laws and the Maine Clean Election Act.  Petition supporters have 18 months from this past May to gather just over 57,000 signatures to submit the measure to the Legislature to be accepted as presented, or passed on to the voters.  Among its provisions, the initiative seeks to require gubernatorial transition committees to report donations and expenditures for transition activities.  It also seeks to increase the amounts given to Clean Election candidates for the Maine House of Representatives and Maine Senate.  I am not going to opine on the merits of those provisions here.

Rather, I would like to draw attention to the funding mechanism in the proposal.  The very last section on the very last page of the 13 page document includes a paragraph that would provide funding in the amount of $6 million per biennium for increased State funding of Clean Election candidates.  This language provides that the funding source would be the elimination of "low-performing, unaccountable tax expenditures with little or no demonstrated economic development benefit as determined by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, (OPEGA)."  It further provides that OPEGA would report legislation to the Legislature that would accomplish this funding mechanism. 

Innocent enough?  Not really.  Our Legislature's Taxation Committee is in the midst of working very diligently to create a fair and informed process to evaluate the effectiveness of Maine's economic development and other tax incentives designed to stimulate certain desired activity in our State.  The Taxation Committee will develop this process in a transparent and participatory manner, conducted in the open.  That legislative process is intended to be thoughtful, data-driven and balanced in weighing the merits of a tax incentive program.  This initiated petition's funding mechanism is simply an end run around the Tax Committee's deliberate legislative effort.   

Due to Maine's onerous tax structure, tax incentives and exemptions are the only way our State is able to compete with other states for retaining and attracting businesses to Maine.   Close to home, we in the real estate development industry have seen the huge positive impact the Maine State Historic Tax Credit has had in repurposing abandoned or under-utilized buildings, and in revitalizing downtowns.  As the Taxation Committee debates the merits of various incentives, the Maine Real Estate & Development Association will want the opportunity to make the case for retaining the State Historic Tax Credit, an opportunity that will not be available should the petition secure enough signatures to be sent to voters.  If the petition is adopted, then OPEGA becomes the body selecting the $6 million "pay for" for Clean Election funding. 

The bottom line is that voters may want to think twice before signing any initiated petition, remembering that the normal legislative process affords a transparent and thoughtful consideration of every legislative proposal brought before it, except citizen initiatives, which are limited to an up or down vote.  

Categories: Maine Real Estate Insider