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Why Maine voters are considering a constitutional ‘right to food’

Carolyn Retberg
Robert F. Bukaty
Carolyn Retberg leads a cow to pasture after the morning milking at the Quill's End Farm, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Penobscot, Maine. A ballot question in will give Maine voters a chance to decide on a first-in-the-nation "right to food amendment."

In this week's newsletter: Explaining the origin and implications of Question 3; Question 2 asks Maine voters to borrow for transportation improvements (again); Gov. Mills votes ‘no’ on Question 1; U.S. Energy secretary backs the corridor; Mills steps up public appearances.

Election Day is next Tuesday and, chances are, some Mainers will be surprised to find more than one question on the statewide ballot.


Question 1 — the latest battle in the yearslong war over Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec’s transmission line — is one of three issues on the ballot. Question 2 is a $100 million bond proposal that, if history is any indication, is likely to breeze through. (More about that later.)

But Question 3 is a proposed constitutional amendment that has received scant attention amid the rhetoric and nonstop political messaging about the electricity corridor issue — paid for with $87 million in spending from both sides. Political committees on either side of Question 3, meanwhile, had reported raising and/or spending a whopping $786.67 to date.

So what is Question 3 all about?

The proposed constitutional amendment is an outgrowth of the “food sovereignty” movement that has been growing nationwide for years but has found particular resonance here in Maine. That movement began in Maine about a decade ago when towns, many centered around the Blue Hill peninsula of Hancock County, passed local food sovereignty ordinances seeking to exempt local farmers from government regulation when they wanted to sell directly to consumers.

The movement has since expanded, and the Maine Legislature added a “food sovereignty” law in 2017. But at its core, “food sovereignty” is about people asserting their right to healthy, homegrown or locally produced food.

The question on the ballot reads:

"Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being?"

That sounds pretty innocuous and wholesome, right? And according to supporters, it absolutely is.

“Food is life. There’s nothing more intimate than eating,” state Sen. Craig Hickman, an organic farmer and long-time advocate for enshrining a right to food in Maine’s Constitution, wrote in comments submitted to the Maine secretary of state’s office. “Do we have a right to obtain the foods we wish, or don’t we? It’s really that simple. Let’s put it in black and white. Let’s put it in writing.”

But a growing chorus of groups, from the Maine Farm Bureau and animal welfare activists to the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, contend that the vagueness of Q3’s language could have unintended consequences. And in the case of animals, some of those consequences could be brutal.

It’s not often that the Farm Bureau — the powerful national group that lobbies on farm interests nationwide — and animal rights groups are on the same side of an issue. But earlier this month, the heads of the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals co-authored an editorial in the Portland Press Herald urging voters to reject Question 3.

Their major argument was that a constitutional amendment could supersede state or local laws.

“This would eliminate the safeguards that we have in place to help us produce healthy, affordable food for Maine families,” Maine Farm Bureau executive director Julie Ann Smith and the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals’ Meris Bickford wrote. “Could the amendment lead to pigs being raised in tiny urban yards and being slaughtered on the front stoop without regard for food safety standards? It absolutely could.”

Question 3 supporters fiercely contest such arguments, saying the proposed constitutional amendment will not weaken animal rights laws. They also point out that the enabling legislation, which would be referenced by any court analyzing the intent of the constitutional language for a lawsuit, clearly states that the right to food does not allow “trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting, production or acquisition of food.”

If voters decide to enshrine that “right to food” in the constitution, Maine would be the first state to do so. That would place Maine at the forefront of the growing food sovereignty movement, but could — well, probably would — invite legal challenges.

For instance, could a homeowner cite the new constitutional right to push back against their suburban town’s ordinance prohibiting backyard chickens and infuriatingly noisome roosters?

In a piece that aired on Maine Public Radio on Thursday, Dan Shea with Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs said there has been a trend toward using ballot questions and constitutional amendments to settle “sticky issues.” That allows proponents to avoid the frustrating and messy sausage-making that occurs when a bill is proposed, debated and either enacted or rejected in the Legislature.

“But remember, if you veer away from that complexity and murkiness, you're left with vague, often ambiguous language,” Shea told Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell. “Now, somebody is going to interpret that language. If it's a constitutional amendment that will be interpreted by the courts. And I would argue that's one of the least democratic institutions that we have.”

One other thing about Question 3 that is worth noting: Because it is a proposed constitutional amendment, it had to receive a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature to even be sent to voters for consideration. It will only take a majority vote next Tuesday to add the “right to food” amendment to Maine’s Constitution.

And while constitutions — whether Maine’s or the venerable U.S. piece of parchment — tend to be regarded by some as sacrosanct, they can and are amended. In fact, Maine voters have amended the state constitution 174 times in the past 201 years.

The most recent amendment was tacked onto Maine’s Constitution just two years ago when 75% of voters voted to allow disabled individuals to use “an alternative manner” to sign petitions. Two years earlier, voters approved an amendment dealing with the amortization time for losses in the state’s pension funds.

Question 2: Borrowing for transportation (again)

Compared to questions 1 and 3, Question 2 is about as straightforward as ballot questions come.

It’s also a question for which Maine voters have had plenty of practice considering, especially during the last decade.

Question 2 asks, again, if Maine voters want to borrow money for transportation projects, including roads, bridges, airports, seaports and rail. The amount is $100 million.

There’s no discernible campaign for or against Question 2 and that’s probably because it’s rare these days that anyone opposes transportation infrastructure funding, especially funding for highways.

Of the nearly 40 highway bond proposals that have gone to voters since 1951, nearly all of them have been ratified by Maine voters, according to a compendium by the state Law and Legislative Reference Library. A notable exception occurred in 1969 when voters decided against a $21.5 million highway bond. The reasons for the defeat are unclear, although it’s worth noting that at the time the state did not have a Department of Transportation, the highway system wasn’t even complete and advocates for rail and trucking were at each other’s throats as the latter began supplanting the former in the moving of goods. There were also 13 bond measures on the 1969 ballot and the highway bond was the most pricey of them all; it was among the six bond proposals defeated that year.

Voters were also fickle about transportation projects in general prior to the 1970s .(Fund a bridge between Bangor and Brewer? “Sure!” voters in 1951 said. How about one between Lewiston and Auburn? “No!”)

But that has changed, especially in recent years.

In fact, Maine voters have considered some kind of transportation bond in all but two elections since 2010. Each one of them passed easily.

The increased frequency of the borrowing requests corresponds with two events. One is increased fuel efficiency standards at the federal level, also known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE. The other is a freeze on inflation indexing of the gas tax by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011.

The politics of raising the gas tax are viewed as perilous by state and federal lawmakers and so are alternative solutions, which are introduced every year in the Legislature. Those proposals go down in flames. Every year.

Instead, state lawmakers have opted for borrowing proposals approved by voters and federal money when it’s made available.

Mills a ‘no’ on Question 1

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills used her weekly radio address Thursday to announce that she voted against Question 1 this week.

The announcement wasn’t terribly surprising. Mills has been a supporter of the $1 billion project since taking office in 2019.

The only surprise was her timing.

On Wednesday, the governor’s office lightly scolded Dennis Arriola, the CEO of Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power, for announcing Mills’ position on the referendum before Mills did.

Arriola had struck a confident tone about the fate of Question 1 during an earnings call with shareholders and he included Mills in the list of opponents to the referendum.

When asked by Maine Public’s Fred Bever if the governor indeed opposed the referendum, her spokesperson Lindsay Crete issued a statement acknowledging Mills’ support for the project, but also chiding Arriola for assuming that she also opposed Question 1.

“She intends to share her thoughts on Question 1 in the coming days,” Crete said, “but, in the meantime, the CEO of Avangrid, with whom she has not spoken about this topic, would do well to not characterize her position on any issue and should focus instead on ensuring that CMP is providing reliable and affordable service and is properly responding to the needs of Maine people.”

Arriola later clarified his remarks after Maine Public shared the statement from the governor’s office.

“Today I made a comment at our investor call that listed supporters of the NECEC and those against the referendum collectively,” he said. “My intention was to indicate Governor Mills’ support for the project, not to characterize her position regarding the referendum.”

U.S. Energy Secretary touts corridor

Shortly before Mills announced that she voted ‘no’ on Question 1, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm encouraged Maine voters to do the same.

Granholm, who was the first woman elected governor in Michigan (Mills is the first in Maine), tweeted a thread that urged Maine voters to support the project and vote ‘no’ next week, focusing mostly on its purported climate benefits.

While Granholm’s endorsement is technically not the same as an endorsement from President Joe Biden, it’s hard to imagine that she would publicly back the project if he doesn’t.

Biden’s climate agenda is a significant plank in the sprawling Build Back Better proposal that’s still being negotiated by Democrats in Congress and the White House. A framework of a deal was released yesterday, but did not include many specifics.

The president has previously emphasized wind and solar, which he envisions as helping to bring back manufacturing jobs in addition to providing renewable power to the national electric grid. However, there is some speculation that Biden’s plan will eventually call for more hydropower imports from Canada.

The CMP corridor, of course, is tapping the same source for the electricity that would enter the New England grid to satisfy a contract with Massachusetts.

In April, the group Americans for a Clean Energy Grid identified 22 “shovel-ready” projects in the U.S. that would yield 60,000 megawatts of renewable energy. Two of them are Hydro-Quebec imports, although not the CMP corridor.

More Mills

It’s not your imagination. The governor is holding more press and public events lately.

As of Thursday, Mills has held some kind of event every day this week, including announcements to use federal aid to beef up the health care workforce and affordable housing. That’s on the heels of several events in the previous two weeks.

Mills has not officially announced her reelection bid, but one of the perks of being the governor is that public events and announcements tend to draw attention. It’s also a chance for Mills to showcase policy achievements and, in some recent cases, highlight how her administration is utilizing a significant slug of federal cash.

While incumbent politicians are often criticized for using such events for campaign purposes, it’s rare that those complaints stick so long as the incumbent doesn’t mention their opponent or the campaign.

Mills’ office has indicated that an official reelection announcement might not happen until next year. Her opponent, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, kicked off his campaign in September after announcing that he’s running in July.

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