AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party will move forward with a 2016 referendum proposal to reduce taxes and reform welfare as a single package, even though Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Tuesday that it should be split into two different questions.

Dunlap’s decision is a recommendation for now, but if Republicans collect enough signatures to send the matter to Maine voters, the Democratic secretary of state can break it into two questions on the ballot next year.

Dunlap said in a Monday letter to Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett that the questions should be split by Maine law, an argument he alluded to earlier this month. The law doesn’t explicitly say there must be one question for each issue on a referendum, but it recommends a “separate question for each issue,” calling that the “proper suggested format.”

Bennett said Tuesday that Republicans will go forward as if there will be one question, notwithstanding Dunlap’s advice.

“I look forward to having a conversation with the secretary of state about that, if and when the time comes,” he said.

Two questions may make it harder for both issues to pass, and to get them to the ballot, Republicans must gather more than 61,000 signatures by Feb. 1.

The party should be able to start collecting signatures in early November after a fiscal impact review from the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm.

Dunlap’s office would be able to split the referendum into two questions after a required legislative vote on the measure next year. Julie Flynn, his deputy, said the office last recommended splitting a proposal in 2011, when a petitioner asked for gambling and election law changes that never moved forward.

In an interview, Dunlap called taxes and welfare “disparate policy issues” that were “like taking wildlife management and mixing it with state holidays.” He said one question would do a disservice to voters, who may have different opinions on the respective welfare and tax changes.

“Welfare and taxation are totally different from each other,” he said. “As far as legislation goes, they’re totally separate.”

The Republicans’ plan, submitted to Dunlap in September, aims to eliminate the income tax by reducing rates between 2018 and 2021, dedicating state liquor revenue to bring it down afterward. It also would place new restrictions on cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, food stamps and other benefits.

The Maine Republican Party has noted that the law says Dunlap must consider whether the issues in question “are severable and can be enacted or rejected separately without negating the intent of the petitioners” and said earlier this month that splitting the proposed question would “negate our intent.”

“As I’ve said from the very beginning, this is a basket of reforms that, I think, are connected,” Bennett said. “This is about making Maine a state of opportunity and prosperity.”

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...