AUGUSTA, Maine — When Maine governors first took office in the 1820s, they were elected for terms that lasted just one year. But as the state grew, they needed more time in office to deal with issues such as roads, schools and jobs.
In 1879, the first fix was made: The state constitution was amended to give governors two-year terms.
So it stayed for the next 78 years. Then, in 1957, the constitution was amended again, giving governors four-year terms and limiting governors to two consecutive terms.
While not all amendments to the Maine constitution have been as foundational as determining how long someone can be governor, recently proposed amendments have captured headlines because of their potential to change the constitution on a similar scale.
Now in his second term, Republican Gov. Paul LePage wants amendments that would replace the secretary of state position with a lieutenant governor and get rid of the income tax. He also is considering proposing an amendment that would change the way the state elects its treasurer and attorney general, from election by the Legislature to either a popular election or appointment by the governor.
The process of amending the state constitution begins with the governor or a state senator or representative submitting the proposed amendment to the Legislature. If it passes by two-thirds, it then goes to voters, where a majority is sufficient to amend the approximately 17,000-word constitution.
If LePage decides to go down that road, he faces a daunting history. Of the approximately 1,200 amendments proposed, only 172 have been approved by the Legislature and voters and been added to the constitution, according to records at the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.
The people of Maine had a constitution before they technically had a state, according to Marshall Tinkle, a Portland lawyer and author of “The Maine State Constitution.”
In 1819, delegates representing Maine towns wrote the constitution, and voters gave it their approval at the end of that year. The next year, residents voted to secede from Massachusetts and became the 23rd state.
The first amendment came 15 years after Maine was recognized as a state in its own right. Taking effect in 1835, it spelled out how elections would be conducted in the emerging cities of Bangor and Portland, which hadn’t been cities when the constitution was written, according to Tinkle’s book.
Many subsequent amendments had a similar emphasis on clarifying the mechanics of state and local government. Around one-third of constitutional amendments either make changes in elections or ask for approval of bonds, law library records show.
From 1912 through 1949, amendments dealing with government bonds were so prevalent they made up a third of all amendments.
In 1949, an amendment passed giving the Legislature greater authority to issue bonds without having to amend the constitution.
“I think the point is, the constitution reflects Maine culture, which is relatively moderate, doesn’t like a lot of rapid change, but does want to keep things up to date,” said Kenneth Palmer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine specializing in Maine and American politics.
The amendments that have significantly changed Maine government are fewer. One of those amendments, effective in 1909, made Maine one of the first states where voters could block laws their government passed or propose laws on their own, provided they could get enough voter signatures to put the issue on the ballot, according to Tinkle’s book.
The provisions this amendment created, called the People’s Veto and the Citizen’s Initiative, “made the state more broadly democratic when there was an alternative to laws passed by the Legislature,” Tinkle said.
Another major amendment, in 1995, granted the governor the right to veto parts of the budget, known as a line-item veto.
An amendment approved in 1988 that took effect five years later because of a technicality brought the constitution up to date with the changing roles of the sexes. It eliminated more than 100 masculine pronouns and masculine terms from the constitution. For example, the state’s Declaration of Rights was changed to say “all people,” not “all men,” are equal.
Despite its influence over state affairs, Maine’s constitution does not get the attention it deserves, Tinkle said.
Lawmakers understand it well enough to change it, but “it’s not a topic of conversation on the bus,” Palmer said.
“I think that by not resorting to the state constitution and resorting instead to the federal constitution, you’re losing the ability to make a lot of arguments that could give Maine citizens more rights than are recognized” in the federal constitution, Tinkle said.
For instance, the state’s constitution has broader definitions of self-incrimination and the right to counsel than does the federal constitution, he said.
“It’s just been assumed that the state constitution means no less, no more than the rights established under the federal constitution,” Tinkle said.
The weight that the constitution carries as opposed to a statute in the state’s law books is illustrated by the fact that LePage wants to take that route to bar a state income tax.
He could do with a vote in the Legislature and not have to go to a referendum, but he prefers the constitutional route.
Paul Mills of Farmington, a lawyer and expert in Maine’s political history, said barring an income tax in a sacred document like the constitution gives it a much higher status.
“You’re bold face and capitalizing it,” he said. “You’re making it more emphatic and figuratively harder to erase.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: email@example.com. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.