Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to state that a citizens’ initiative or people’s veto petition must be submitted to local or state officials by the constitutional deadline in order to be certified and, in the case of a citizens’ initiative, must be filed with the Secretary of State within 18 months?
AUGUSTA – Both of the referendum questions on the Nov. 7 ballot have connections to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights – one direct, and one indirect.
The first question, which asks for an up-or-down vote on the merits of the TABOR spending limits proposal itself, has monopolized virtually all of the public debate so far.
The second question, which has generated barely a whisper of public discussion, seeks to clear up a legal gray area that surfaced while the TABOR initiative campaign was seeking ballot approval.
Question 2 goes to voters in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment that sets a precise time frame for filing initiative petitions with the secretary of state, ending a contradiction in Maine laws that eventually went to the state supreme court for clarification.
Legislative approval of the amendment paved the way for the question to go before voters.
In effect, it proposes that signed petitions for a direct initiative must be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office within 18 months after the date the petition is approved by the secretary for circulation.
It also clarifies that, to be valid, signatures on initiative petitions may not be older than one year at the time the petitions are filed with the secretary of state.
The changes address town clerks’ long-standing frustration with petition bottlenecks, which prompted them to ask the Legislature to remedy the situation. A study was begun and a report was issued last January.
The issue coincidentally gained broader public notice in February when Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap ruled that enough valid petition signatures had been submitted the previous fall to place the TABOR proposal on Maine’s 2006 ballot.
At the time, Dunlap also acknowledged that the initiative campaign would have failed if state officials had not chosen to accept some petitions after a statutory deadline for filing. His decision underscored the fact that there were two ways of establishing the deadline for turning in petitions.
The state constitution requires that, in second regular sessions of a legislature – which this year opened on Jan. 4 – petitions must be filed with the secretary of state on or before the 25th day after lawmakers convene.
The constitution also says “no signature older than one year from the written date on the petition shall be valid.”
A state statute, on the other hand, bases the deadline on the day election officials approve a form for the petition. In the case of TABOR, it was Oct. 21, 2004, meaning signed petitions had to be filed within one year of that date.
In choosing the wider time frame, Dunlap said the law “must be liberally construed to facilitate, and not to handicap, exercise of the people’s power to legislate.”
His decision was challenged in Superior Court, which overruled Dunlap. In his ruling, Justice Donald Marden cited reasons for the separate deadlines: one to give lawmakers enough time to review initiatives, the other to maintain integrity in the initiative process.
The supreme court, however, overturned Marden’s ruling. In a unanimous decision, the court said the constitution trumps the state statute that would have set the earlier deadline to file petitions. The decision set the TABOR initiative back on track.
No organized effort to pass or reject the amendment has developed since the proposal was put forward, said the Secretary of State’s Office, which contributed to the fashioning of the measure.
No individual or group has opted to offer public comment in support or opposition to the amendment on the state’s citizens’ guide to the referendum.
Dunlap said the clarity offered by the proposed amendment will be helpful to organizers of citizens’ initiatives and people’s vetoes, who will get a full 18 months to complete their work.
“The measure is also important for state and local election officials as they seek to ensure fair procedures and meet their obligations under the constitution,” Dunlap said.
On the Net: Citizens’ Guide to Referendum Election: http:///www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/2006/intent06.html