Thoughts on Referendum Questions

With Election Day coming up on November 7th, it is a good time to review the questions the voters will be asked to answer on their individual ballots.

I have found that referendums can be extremely confusing.  Sometime an issue is so complex that a one or two sentence summary doesn’t come close to doing it justice.   Other times, the question seems to be written in a way that only a lawyer could love.  To top it off, we are asked to choose between all these difficult questions on a Tuesday, while running to work or getting that missing peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school.

To help make sense of the issues, I’ve spent time and energy researching each referendum question. Here is the breakdown as I see it:

Question 1:  Casino. There’s a backstory here.  Several of our New England neighbors have passed gaming rights legislation which includes a buy-in fee to begin a project (often exceeding $100 million dollars), a license fee structure, and a substantial percentage of the revenues going to the state to fund education and other programs. This guarantees the state a role in selecting gaming companies and ensures the state benefits from gaming. However, we haven’t set that process up in Maine.  Thus, the only way to obtain a casino gaming license is via the public referendum process. People behind the referendum write the legislation and they can do it any way they want. That is the problem with this question.  This license will be worth a truckload of money, perhaps as much as $50 or $100 million dollars on the day it is granted, and the advocates of the referendum will almost certainly sell the license as soon as it is approved by the voters. The state will have little control over the project or how it is developed.  The percentage of revenue shared with the state will be a very small. The financing of this referendum effort has been questionable as well.

It is possible that passage of this referendum will lead to an excellent, successful project, but the reverse is entirely possible too.

Question 2: Medicaid Expansion. When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, it was structured so that everyone with an income below $16,643 per year (working about 35 hours a week at minimum wage) would be eligible for Medicaid (known here in Maine as MaineCare). However, some states, including Maine, chose not to offer Medicaid except to children, leaving many part-time workers with no option to obtain health coverage, since they were in kind of a donut hole where they made too much to qualify for MaineCare, but not enough to buy in the health insurance marketplace. Health care is important, and not having it holds us back from success. In the middle of a drug crisis, those in recovery are especially likely to get caught out by the lack of coverage.

This is a debate where both sides have argued valid points. The expansion of MaineCare will cost more out of the gate, but it will also save more down the road.  When someone without health care coverage gets sick, the costs just get spread to everyone else, making health care more expensive for all of us.

Question 3 is a transportation bond. One of these transportation bonds is on the ballot pretty much every year, and they always pass, because we all want to make our commute to work shorter and get our kids to soccer practice faster. I’m no different – I support this bond and think it should pass. However, I believe the continued bonding of transportation by the legislature is short-sighted. Rather, I would like to see the state simply build the costs of such infrastructure projects into the state budget. The amount of this bond, $105 million, is well within the reach of our state’s $7 billion budget. Funding these types of projects through a bond actually costs us more in the long run, since by the time we pay this bond back, we will have paid millions of extra dollars in interest. Plus, bonding creates expensive delays in construction planning. The Department of Transportation is not able save money by procuring materials and entering into contracts in advance – because they have to wait to see if the bond passes. It would be smarter if we just put it in the budget. So, I support this bond but not the politics behind it.

Question 4 is a technical fix to bring our public pension funding into line with modern industry standards. Governor LePage has done a good job, together with the Legislature, of stabilizing our pension system. We now have one of the best funded public retirement systems in the nation. If this passes it will smooth out the budgeting process by making calculations in Maine’s pensions funds across a 20-year span instead of the current 10. Most financial experts agree this is a better approach. A yes vote here will stabilize the system further.

I hope you have found my thoughts on the referendum questions useful. Whether you agree or disagree, one thing is for sure: the election will be decided by those who vote.

All voting for Biddeford voters will take place at Tiger Gym at Biddeford High School. Polls will be open from 7AM to 8PM. While there, please take a moment to thank the volunteers who help out at the polls, as well as the city clerk and staff.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an Independent State Representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Commission. Marty hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show. Find it on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, and sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com or facebook.com/repgrohman