By Paul H. Mills
With another hour – courtesy of standard time – comes the bonus of a few more minutes in which to consider what is going on Tuesday.
Though local elections in Maine’s largest cities including a verdict whether Lewiston and Auburn will merge their municipal identities command interest in many places, state-wide issues are also on the ballot.
For the ninth time in the 21st century a casino referendum heads up the list. If history is any guide, this year’s proposal does face some uphill though unpredictable odds. Six of the last eight have been defeated. The only two that prevailed were voted in by a narrow margin. This included the Oxford County project approved just seven years ago, which passed by just one percentage point out of the 565,000 Mainers who weighed in.
Outcome on such citizen referenda including the Medicaid expansion are always difficult to predict, however. That’s because unlike candidate elections, there are no explicit political party identifications with which to anchor the result. Though both Democrats and Republicans cross over to split their ticket in choosing candidates, most ordinarily retain an allegiance in voting for the nominees of their own parties. Such identification does not usually occur in referenda voting.
The Bond Issue
The bond issue for $105 million is the biggest since 2007. Like the counterpart from 10 years ago, which was $113 million, it’s for transportation. One of the safest predictions one can make is that despite its magnitude and a perceived popular disaffection with government, it is likely to pass. In the 21 years from 1995 through last year, 68 or the 71 debt issues including all on transportation have been approved.
For some reason – perhaps because of low interest rates – long term debt no longer has the stigma it once experienced with Maine voters. Even in the 2007-2010 era of the Great Recession, all 12 bond issues were approved. More typical of the general historic trend is that from 1990 to 1994 when only half of the 34 bond issues prevailed. This included one occasion when six or the seven were defeated. That was in 1991, the year when GOP Senate leader Charles Webster temporarily froze many functions of government in a 17-day shutdown in the depth of that year’s recession.
Most bond issues have more company on the ballot than now (an exception was six years ago, the first year of the LePage administration when there were none.) Ten bond questions – the last year of the Baldacci administration – were offered in 2010, for example. All of them, even in that year of voter unrest typified by Tea Party triumphs and the election of a GOP legislature and Governor LePage, were approved.
The record for the highest number of separate bond issues in a single Maine election was set in the 1969. That’s when 12 – adding up to a total of $117 million – were on the ballot.
This late 1960s era was one of unprecedented prosperity, low unemployment and high wages in Maine and the nation. Expanded payrolls whether it be for poultry processing in Belfast, shoes in Wilton or pulp at the newly expanded International Paper Company in Jay were the order of the day. Nevertheless, despite the economic climax that Maine was then experiencing, only half the bond issues on the ballot were approved at that time.
The paradox of bond issue rejections in a time when tax payer pockets are almost full but bond issue ratification in an era when they are almost empty is but one of the many ironies of voting behavior.
The Constitutional Question
For the first time in six years Mainers will go to the polls to vote on a constitutional amendment. This one gives the state’s pension system greater flexibility in recovering fund losses in the event of a Wall Street crash. The technical elements of it are a bit arcane but in any event it provides for increasing the length of time over which such losses may be recovered or “amortized” from 10 to 20 years, it being argued that this is in line with general pension industry benchmarks.
Unlike its federal counterpart, Maine’s constitution has been amended many times, 138 since 1910 alone. This compares with 12 during the same period at the federal level.
Maine, like many state governments, has constitutionalized its affairs. It micromanages them in ways that the federal system does not. For example, until 1949 Maine law required a constitutional amendment every time the state wanted to pass a bond issue.
Though voters have been supportive of constitutional amendments they have been more skeptical of them than they recently have of the state government’s long-term spending proposals.
Most amendments fare well with the voters and if the past long-term history is any indication this one will pass as well. Of the 167 proposed since 2010, 83 percent or 138 of them have been enacted.
The more recent track record has been slightly less favorable, however. Over the last 31 years, 21 out of the 31 proposed in that time period have passed, the percentage therefore being only about 68 percent. The last one defeated was in 2009 when the time to extend the time for town clerks to certify citizen initiated petitions was rejected.
The last one, a 2011 amendment on reapportionment procedures, did manage to pass, however.
Since it has been six years since the last amendment was proposed, there is no fresh calibration to handicap the result on this one, this year.
The suspense attending it as well as the myriad of other state and local issues for this year’s off-year balloting is the reason why taking a trip to the polls on Tuesday ought to be a worthwhile experience.
Throughout the state all precincts are required to be open until 8 p.m. All communities except those with fewer than 500 must open as early as 8 a.m., the smaller ones being permitted to wait until 10 a.m.
Besides, the luxury of an extra hour bestowed upon us by Sunday’s setting back the clocks, we have fewer excuses to miss this appointment with democracy.
Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com.