AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party’s path to cutting taxes and reforming welfare together may get harder, with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap saying Tuesday that he may split the party’s proposed single referendum effort into two distinct ballot questions.

A top Republican Party official said this would be “a radical move,” but Dunlap, a Democrat, said while his office is now “leaning in a certain direction” on splitting the proposal for the 2016 ballot, its final decision should come next week.

The GOP plan was outlined in a proposal submitted to Dunlap in September. Absent a lawsuit, the secretary of state has the final say on the question if it gets to the ballot, for which the party must collect more than 61,000 signatures by Feb. 1.

The initiative would take the goals of Gov. Paul LePage directly to voters and around the Legislature, where Democrats have killed many of the governor’s proposed tax and welfare cuts. Many of them were voted out of the compromise state budget passed by both parties this year.

That infuriated LePage, who has criticized lawmakers since. He told an audience in June that “we have to get rid of the income tax or get rid of the bums who don’t want you to have a say.”

Although Maine law does not say there must be one question for each issue on a referendum, the law does recommend “a separate question for each issue” and gives the secretary of state authority to advise petitioners this is the “proper suggested format.”

The law also outlines the conditions the secretary of state should weigh about whether to split questions, including if voters could have different opinions on issues, or if the questions can be separated without negating the intent of the petitioners.

Jason Savage, the Maine Republican Party’s executive director, said splitting the question would absolutely “negate our intent.” He noted that Dunlap did approve Question 1 on November’s ballot, which is a package of voting reform laws affecting spending and ethics.

If that can be combined, said Savage in a statement, “so can a question to bring common-sense reforms to our welfare programs and reduce income taxes.”

But Dunlap said while it’s arguable that Question 1 should be split, it only affects one area of the law and the Republican Party’s question is broader.

“A reasonable person could vote differently on these issues, so linking them together if they’re too disparate does a disservice to the voter,” he said.

The Maine Republican Party’s plan would eliminate income taxes by ratcheting the tax rate down between 2018 and 2021, then use state liquor contract revenue to reduce it afterward. Also, it would place new restrictions on cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, food stamps and other benefits.

Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist, said the welfare argument may be easier for Republicans to sell to voters than tax changes, saying welfare is a more emotional issue. Since lowering the income tax will require raising other taxes, he said “there’s more to argue against it.”

“Not only is there more to argue against it, Democrats have been able to argue against it relatively recently, whereas so far they have been unable to counter the Republicans’ arguments on welfare,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...