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There has been little Democratic division on display to date in Maine’s 2023 legislative session, but one of the first big examples came this week over how the majority party’s budget power play last month affected four referendums on the November ballot.
This is an arcane procedural dispute, but there is a lot at stake for the Legislature and the proponents of one of those ballot questions who may have to run what would have been an unnecessary campaign if lawmakers got a chance to pass their initiative.
The context: It is a side effect of Democrats bypassing Republicans to ram through a $9.9 billion state budget last month. Since the budget did not pass with supermajorities, leaders had to use a procedural trick to adjourn the Legislature to enact the bill by late June. Then, they had Mills call them back for a special session to continue their work with bills carried over.
That came with one big wrinkle. The end of the first session led Gov. Janet Mills and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, both Democrats, to argue that lawmakers missed their chance to enact four referendums, automatically sending them to the ballot without the public hearings required by law. While lawmakers rarely enact questions, backers of one question aiming to ban foreign influence in Maine referendums had a good chance at it.
Counter arguments: Proponents of that measure, including Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, have contested that Mills is wrong, since the referendum bills were not printed until the special session that began in April.
Legislative Democrats agree, with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland putting a measure on Tuesday’s House calendar that would ask the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in on questions surrounding that. Republicans stalled consideration of that measure at that point, but it could come back up as soon as Thursday.
What’s at stake: If lawmakers indeed missed their chance at enacting these referendums, Republicans will point to the impact of the Democratic budget play. At least one campaign may have to go on that may not have had to otherwise. The 2019 law requiring hearings on referendums before they go to the ballot will also effectively be violated, though lawmakers could call them. There will also be hurdles to similar budget actions in the future.