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GOP Pushes Off Tax, Welfare Reform Ballot Effort Until Next Year

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republican Party officials have decided to extend their efforts to place tax and welfare reform ballot questions before the voters by waiting until November of next year.

Rick Bennett, GOP state chair, says that while the party fell short in its attempt to collect enough signatures for inclusion on this fall’s ballot, the issues are still major concerns for thousands of Maine voters.

The party decided in November to launch a citizens initiative on welfare and tax reform, goals pushed by Gov. Paul LePage. The task then became gathering 61,123 valid signatures from registered Maine voters in a little more than three months in order to qualify for the November ballot.

“That’s an awfully big number — maybe it doesn’t sound like a big number but you think about the effort at this time of year,” says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Dunlap says the Maine Republican Party faced serious challenges as it attempted to try to meet the state’s 5 p.m. Monday deadline for submitting its petition.

The initiatives would require Maine lawmakers to come up with plans to reduce the top income tax rate from the current 7.15 percent down to 4 percent over a four-year period. The question also places new restrictions on cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and reduces eligibility for food stamps.

Dunlap says meeting the threshold to get on the ballot during cold weather would be challenging for any organization.

“In the fall and the winter when you have the holiday season, the days are getting shorter, you have snowstorms, it’s cold out and if you’re asking people to take time out of their work schedule or away from their businesses or away from their family to either go door-to-door to gather signatures or to stand in front of a public place to do it — it’s an enormous undertaking,” Dunlap says.

Late Friday afternoon, state GOP chairman Rick Bennett says those factors were clearly in play as the party attempted to collect the necessary signatures and reach its decision to extend the effort.

“The Maine Republican Party has decided to continue collecting signatures on our citizens initiative to reform our dysfunctional welfare system and cut our oppressive tax rates and to continue doing so through the early part of 2016, and that of course would subsequently place the proposal on the 2017 ballot rather than 2016,” Bennett says.

Bennett says while Republicans would have liked to have the question before the voters this year, the issues will still effectively have the same trigger.

“We undertook this for a number of reasons, and from a policy perspective the measure is written in such a way that it doesn’t really matter whether it is considered by the voters in 2016 or 2017,” Bennett says.

But from a political perspective, Republicans have missed an important opportunity. University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer says Republicans have failed to galvanize their base by not placing their two core issues before Maine voters during a presidential election year, which historically has turned out a larger number of Democrats.

“I think they really wanted to have both of these issues on the ballot to try and give them a better chance to compete with the Democratic turnout advantage that you get in a presidential year, so I don’t know if I’d say it’s a big setback, but it’s most certainly a setback,” he says.

The Republican Party launched its high-pressure effort to gather its signatures in less than 80 days by using a combination of paid and volunteer signature gatherers.