The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments on Wednesday about whether the Legislature forfeited its chance to act on four ballot initiatives when Democrats used a procedural maneuver to enact the state’s next budget.
The dispute pits the Legislature against the secretary of state and the governor’s office, which in April certified proclamations that effectively put the four ballot initiatives before voters this November.
Attorneys for the Legislature argued before the law court that certifying the proclamations subverted its chance to act on the proposals, specifically one that would bar some entities owned by foreign governments from electioneering in state referendums.
The Office of the Attorney General, siding with the secretary of state and the governor, argued that the Legislature missed its chance when it adjourned the regular session in late March to enact the state budget, and that a different interpretation of the law could allow future legislatures to stall referendums for political purposes.
David Kallin, an attorney representing the Legislature, rejected that interpretation, saying the bills that would enact the four referendums weren’t even printed when the Legislature adjourned and that lawmakers intended to take them up during the current special session.
The justices grilled attorneys from both sides on whether legislative leaders who control the flow of bills could have — or should have — expedited the referendum bills.
Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said at the close of arguments that the court will issue an opinion as soon as possible, but did not provide a definitive date.
Justices Catherine Connors and Rick Lawrence recused themselves from the case, but did not provide a reason for doing so.
The court’s opinion will likely only affect the foreign influence ballot initiative, which has drawn bipartisan support as supporters of the campaign push to pass the law in the Legislature rather than engaging in a campaign to persuade voters to enact it at the ballot box. There has not been the same push for the other three initiatives, which include one that would take over Central Maine Power and Versant Power and replace the two electric utilities with a nonprofit run by an elected board.
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 Gov. Janet 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, although Mills has not taken a position on the current proposal.