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Robert Fisk Jr. is the founder and president of Maine Friends of Animals in Falmouth.
Before the ink has barely dried, an ill-conceived piece of legislation and referendum is being used to try and overturn Maine’s ban on Sunday hunting. The recent lawsuit to allow Sunday hunting is based on the new right-to-food constitutional amendment that voters passed last November. It is remarkable how this even came to pass.
Although groups like the Maine Farm Bureau, the Maine Municipal Association and Maine Veterinary Medical Association spoke against the referendum, only one national and three Maine-based animal-protection organizations (including the one I lead) sounded the alarms that the referendum was too broad and even deceptively vague, and what that could mean. How would “the unalienable constitutional right to harvest food” affect and restrict local ordinances, animal welfare laws, environment and food safety, and enforcement of wildlife limits? Was any serious thought given to the unintended consequences? The latter played out a lot faster and with more impact than expected. The supposed innocuous referendum could now be the vehicle to Sunday hunting with funding from out-of-state hunters like a group with ties to Ted Nugent. How did this happen?
The amendment was very poorly crafted legislation. The conundrum with Question 3 was its vague language, which raised more questions than it answered. Generally, poorly written legislation can kill a bill before it gets started. Even so, if left to the Legislature, it could have been better defined and perhaps made workable, but our Legislature dropped the ball. Now, unfortunately, it seems only lawyers will benefit as the right-to-food amendment is defined as it makes its way through the court system.
A similar bill failed twice before in the legislature, so why did over two-thirds of the Legislature — Democrats and Republicans alike — feel the need to pass it along to the public this time? Why the drastic measure? A constitutional amendment is serious legislative business, meant to address an important public issue. Where is the compelling issue? And it even begets “a solution looking for a problem.” The right-to-food amendment, well-meaning as it may be, is clearly not about hunger; and it is important to note that no other state in the country has felt a need for such an amendment. Our elected officials failed in their job by putting it on the November ballot instead of working it more through committee, where its weaknesses could have been corrected. Few expected the Legislature to vote the way it did. With only a few months before Election Day, it was impossible to build a campaign necessary to defeat it, especially in an off-year election when the voters are typically less engaged.
The opposition simply did not have the time to amass the resources needed to conduct a campaign to educate the public and deconstruct the amendment arguments. It was a feel good measure, perfectly written as such as a referendum question. It was a perfect storm for an ill-conceived idea that will likely become a contentious Maine law for years to come.
The right-to-food amendment was not only unnecessary, it was defective, vague, misleading even in its title, failed to consider the unintended consequences and provided no sense of real need, especially to amend our state Constitution. The Legislature, instead of executing its responsibility to pass thoughtful legislation, provided Maine voters little time or recourse to properly understand and defeat an extremely flawed referendum.