AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said Wednesday that the party intends to send major tax and welfare reforms it hopes to enact through citizen initiative in 2016 to voters as a single ballot question.
Though Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, has final say regarding how the question will be worded, Bennett said he hopes the wording will be simple, to the effect of “Do you want to reform welfare and reduce taxes?”
The Maine Republican Party filed paperwork Wednesday with Dunlap’s office to kick off the petition process. Several states don’t allow more than one subject to be covered in a single referendum question, but Maine is not one of them.
At issue is a major petition drive that is expected to unfold in the coming months after the Legislature blocked a range of bills sponsored by Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans this year. Most of those initiatives were defeated at the committee level or voted down by Democrats, who hold the majority in the House of Representatives.
Among the proposed changes, as reported Tuesday in the Bangor Daily News, will be an attempt to eliminate the state’s income tax rate by ratcheting it down by 0.8 percentage points a year between 2018 and 2021 and using excess proceeds from the state liquor contract from 2024 into the future. The party also is seeking to place stricter restrictions on the flow of social service benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, General Assistance and Supplemental Security Income.
Bennett said the party is proposing a new caveat when it comes to benefits for some immigrants and asylum seekers whom LePage and others have been attempting to ban from the welfare rolls: elderly Mainers and people who are blind would be exempted.
“A lot of these initiatives were blocked by Democrats in the House, so we decided we need to take these questions directly to the voters,” said Bennett.
Sen. Anne Haskell, a Democrat who serves on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said pushing people off social service programs would be costly in both dollars and impact on Mainers.
“As other states that have tried these failed policies have learned, these proposals will bring new administrative costs while providing no benefit to taxpayers or needy families,” said Haskell in a written statement. “Our safety net should focus on lifting people out of poverty, but Republicans are focused on painting every single-mom, low-income family and refugee fleeing war and violence as a cheat and drug addict.”
Bennett said the GOP conducted a survey earlier this year, which he said involved 600 respondents who were categorized to reflect the party breakdown of Maine’s electorate. The survey found strong support for the initiatives, as well as containing them in a single question.
Asked whether including a wide range of smaller initiatives could doom the whole thing if any of the details finds widespread opposition, Bennett said he wasn’t worried about that. He said the key to success will be convincing voters that income tax cuts enacted in 2011 by LePage and legislative Republicans have benefited Maine.
“We just need to show Maine people that track record,” said Bennett.
Bennett said the party hopes to gather the needed signatures with volunteers as opposed to paid operatives.
LePage said Wednesday afternoon during a meeting with reporters that he supports the GOP’s tax initiative, even though it falls well short of the governor’s often-stated goal of eliminating the income tax by the end of his second term in 2018.
“I obviously didn’t make it to get it in this term,” he said. “I don’t take failure very easily but I never give up. I am going to support it. … Anything is better than where we are.”
The Republican Party must collect more than 61,000 verified signatures from registered Maine voters to push the process forward.