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Maine lawmakers to seek OK from law court to pass foreign electioneering ban

A sampling of political mailers sent to Maine voters on Question 1.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
A sampling of political mailers sent to Maine voters on Question 1, which Maine voters passed in Nov. 2021.

Supporters of a ballot initiative barring foreign governments from influencing Maine referendum campaigns continued their push on Wednesday to have the Legislature enact the measure instead of sending it to voters in November. But their efforts may have been thwarted when Democrats used a procedural maneuver to enact the state's next budget.

Democrats quickly adjourned the Legislature in March after enacting the spending plan so it could go into effect by July 1.

Lawmakers were subsequently called back into a special session by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills so that the Legislature could complete its work on hundreds of bills.

But four of those bills, including the proposed ban on foreign government electioneering, are ballot initiatives, and there are questions about whether state law allows the Legislature to act on them now.

A spokesperson for Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, says the state's top elections official believes the four initiatives must now go to voters. And Mills, also a Democrat, has already signed the proclamations that puts them on the November ballot.

"After consulting the Office of the Attorney General, the Governor issued four proclamations sending the questions to voters — a ministerial action required by the Maine Constitution, done in consultation with relevant Constitutional Offices, without regard to the content of the proposals, and consistent with past practice," Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman said in a statement.

But state lawmakers who had hoped to have the Legislature enact the foreign government electioneering ban will now vote Thursday on whether to have the matter resolved by the Maine law court.

Among them is Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, who is also leading the ballot campaign.

"It's astonishing to me that we have been reduced to that," he said during press event at the State House. "That we have to ask for a solemn occasion of the Supreme Judicial Court to reaffirm our constitutional right to petition our government."

The Legislature hasn't enacted a certified ballot initiative in 16 years and typically defers to voters.

The foreign electioneering ban measure could break that trend if the law court says the Legislature can still act on it this session.

The proposal was inspired by a 2021 referendum aimed at scuttling Central Maine Power's controversial transmission corridor through Western Maine. Hydro-Quebec, the power supplier for the project, was among the companies that spent more than $51 million trying to defeat the referendum.

The electioneering effort by the Quebec government-owned company revealed a loophole in state law that bars foreign nationals and companies from contributing to candidate campaigns, but is silent on state referendums.

An effort to close that loophole in the Legislature was opposed by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Forest Products Council and Mills, who ultimately vetoed a foreign electioneering ban bill in 2021 after it was enacted by the Legislature. That veto inspired the ballot campaign that gathered signatures to put a similar ban on this year's ballot.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.