2017-11-16 / Editorial

Let’s protect referendums from legislative tampering

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

On Election Day this year, the people of Maine scored a huge victory when they enacted a new law that will provide health insurance coverage to roughly 80,000 Mainers by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Expanding Medicaid will provide coverage to Mainers who previously earned too much for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for affordable plans on the ACA marketplace. It will also stabilize Maine’s rural hospitals and give our state a fighting chance against the opioid epidemic.

Providing health care to more people through Medicaid expansion has always been popular in our state because Mainers believe that a decent society is one that doesn’t allow people to fall through the cracks.

The Legislature has enacted expansion five times. Every time, Gov. Paul LePage and his allies thwarted this lifesaving expansion of health care with the governor’s veto stamp. Since we weren’t getting anywhere at the state house, voters took matters into their own hands and enacted Medicaid expansion at the ballot box by an overwhelming margin. In fact, they passed it by a larger margin than any other referendum in the new millennium.

But, I’d be lying if I said that voters’ joy over expanding health care wasn’t tinged with a little doubt.

After all, the Legislature spent much of the past year undermining or outright repealing other popular policies enacted by majorities at the ballot box. In fact, all four referendums approved in 2016 – ranked-choice voting, the minimum wage increase, marijuana legalization and a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for our schools – were tweaked or repealed by the Legislature.

The undermining of the public referendum process has, of course, undermined the people’s trust in government and the trust in our political process. I’ve had people ask me: Senator, why should I believe the Legislature won’t similarly undermine health care for those tens of thousands of Mainers who so desperately need it.

I have two answers for them: The first is that I will do everything in my power to ensure Medicaid expansion is implemented, and I’m happy to say that every Democrat in the Senate is committed to this cause. I am confident that no bill to undermine this referendum will make it through the Senate. With Democrats united to protect and implement the law, there’s little the governor can do to stop it.

Second, I tell them that they’re right to be skeptical. It’s wrong that the Legislature so blatantly disregarded the will of the voters so frequently this year. That’s why I’ve submitted a bill to amend Maine’s Constitution, which spells out the referendum process, to prohibit the Legislature from repealing or altering a citizen-initiated law for at least one year after passage. This “anti-tamper” Constitutional amendment will guarantee that a small group of politicians cannot overturn the will of the majority of Maine voters. There should at least be a year where the people-supported new law goes into effect. We can collect data on its impact and effectiveness, and let facts lead the way for possible changes not conjecture and think tank talking points from another state.

There isn’t a better example of big government than a handful of politicians completely ignoring free and fair election results. For those that profess to be for small government, they should prove it. Support the will of the voters and respect the outcome of the election. Taking away the people’s power and putting it into the hands of our bureaucracy doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t want to give government the authority to invalidate your voice and your vote. We have a system of checks and balances, none more important than the public’s ability to fulfill their civic duty and have a level of expectation that their vote will mean something. I don’t care what party you hail from, if we can’t agree that your vote should be counted, our political system is in for a rude awakening.

We must protect the legitimacy of fair and free election results, otherwise what’s the point of voting? If there is one takeaway from all of these referendums that passed is that legislative inaction isn’t acceptable. We must listen to our constituents and work to improve our state. Dampening voter turnout by cherry-picking election outcomes to implement isn’t what people expect their elected officials to be doing. The future of our democratic society is at stake if we don’t push back now.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/ JustinChenette.

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