Lawmakers have a duty to overrule the people when they’re wrong

If you listen carefully, you can hear it. It is a sound that gurgles about every time a major piece of legislation is passed via referendum. It is a shameful noise, filling all those who hear it with a sense of disappointment, regret and pathetic sadness.

It is, of course, the sound of lawmakers abdicating their responsibilities as elected representatives, hiding in the corner, unwilling to act to fix the fundamentally flawed laws that the people voted for.

You might not think such an amorphous thing would have a sound, but believe it or not, it does. Eerily enough, that unwelcome, exasperated regurgitation of powerlessness this year sounds like the voice of incoming Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson.

“Many people in this state may feel that is not something that should be in there. But that is what was voted on by the people of the state of Maine,” says Jackson, referring to the tip credit portion of the new minimum wage law. “Win or lose, you have to honor the people’s vote.”

Jackson has been making statements that effectively throw cold water on the idea of changing anything that was passed by referendum this year, no matter how disastrous to the Maine economy.

Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

It doesn’t matter that most Democratic leaders and legislators agree with their Republican counterparts in recognizing the economically suicidal prospects of having the second highest tax rate in the country. It doesn’t matter that those same Democrats and Republicans almost universally agree that the removal of the tip credit is an idiotic idea that will do tremendous damage to the workers in the restaurant industry.

No, what matters is that elected representatives refuse to legislate, because (supposedly) “the people have spoken.”

Of course, lawmakers have never been shy about ignoring directives passed by referendum, which is why they have never met the 55 percent funding obligation to public schools.

But confronting the people and saying, “I realize you voted for this, but it is a bad law,” or at the very least “it has a lot of bad parts that need to be fixed,” that is a bridge too far.

Let’s be real here for a minute.

Referendums are, as I’ve said several times this year already, one of the most tremendously awful ways to make law. They boil down complex issues to mindless, inaccurate, misleading soundbites and 30-second ads.

They reduce the lawmaking process, which should include robust investigation, research, debate, compromise, and revision to a political game of rhetoric. Whoever has the simpler, easier, more emotional argument always wins, regardless of whether the idea makes any sense at all.

The notion that “the people have spoken” is preposterous. What, for example, did the people say in voting for Question 4? Were they saying “help poor people,” or were they making a detailed, nuanced statement about the importance of eliminating the tip credit?

What were people saying in voting for Question 2? Were they saying, “I like kids and want education to be better,” or were they giving their stamp of approval to a complex funding mechanism and endorsing the notion that money equals educational quality?

People vote for questions for a variety of reasons. Many of them informed, many less so. Many are responsive to the quick arguments made on a handful of television ads, and others cast their vote after deeply researching the question.

Indeed, many undoubtedly said to themselves, “This question is flawed and I hope they change parts of it, but some of it is important enough to me to vote for.” Where is that measured in the vote tallies?

Interpreting voter intent from the results of incredibly complex referendums is virtually impossible.

Besides, are these votes truly a reflection of voter will? Question 2, for instance, had a robust, incredibly well funded campaign advocating for it, and virtually nothing in opposition.

Did “the people” even get presented a case on each side that would allow them to make a fully informed, intelligent decision?

Even without that, Question 2 passed by a razor-thin margin. What does that tell us about what “the people” really think? Your guess is as good as mine.

Failing to admit that the people made an ill-informed, poor choice and that their decision needs to be repealed or fixed is an abdication of one’s duty as a public figure.

The voters have never been shy about overruling or changing law made by the Legislature. The same should hold true in reverse.

When the people are wrong, say so. And do something about it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.