Proposal to ban citizen wildlife initiatives gains traction

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is leading an effort at the legislature for a Constitutional amendment that would ban citizen ballot initiatives on hunting and fishing issues. The measure, sponsored by Representative Ken Fredette, the House Republican leader, gained a lot of traction after the Humane Society of the United States announced a few weeks ago that it would try again, in 2014, to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs and bear trapping. HSUS lost its initiative on this same issue in 2004 by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

If Fredette’s amendment wins the support of the legislature and is enacted by the people in a referendum, HSUS will be unable to pursue its bear referendum. But there are a number of hurdles before this amendment is enacted.

First, it must get the votes of 2/3 of the members of both the House and Senate. That may be difficult, given the opposition of Senator Anne Haskell, an influential Democrat and the only Senate Democrat on the legislature’s Fish and Wildlife Committee. I was told today that a 2/3 vote in the House is a strong likelihood, but the Senate vote is still up in the air.

The bill did win the support of all the other members of the F&W Committee, including Senator David Dutremble, a Democrat and the committee’s Senate chair. Another opponent, Rep. Tim Marks, changed his vote today to support the measure.

Should this amendment get on the ballot, it would be placed there in November, giving sportsmen just a few months to organize and wage a winning campaign. That’s cutting it very close.

I never launched a campaign without first conducting a poll so I knew both the challenges and opportunities, the winning messages, and where and how to effectively direct my limited campaign resources. SAM will have to get a poll into the field quickly, following the legislative vote. And in just a couple of months, a lot of money must be raised to wage an effective campaign.

Opponents are likely to be led by HSUS, a national organization with very deep pockets. The group previously announced that it had budgeted $3 million for its bear initiative campaign.

The Language

The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was still working  on the amendment’s language today, finally resolving a key issue by amending Fredette’s bill. Maine’s Secretary of State, Matt Dunlap, a member of SAM’s Board of Directors, expressed concerns about the original language that called for “amending the Constitution of Maine to provide that laws governing hunting and fishing may not be proposed through a citizen initiative.”

Dunlap recommended banning initiatives that only limited hunting and fishing, and that’s just what the committee did today. The new language proposes to amend the Constitution to “provide that laws limiting hunting and fishing may not be proposed through a citizen imitative.”

I actually tried to do this in 2005, after the last HSUS bear referendum, but could not convince the legislature to support SAM’s proposed Constitutional amendment. This year, the proposal seems to have more support.

The citizen initiative process is almost sacred in Maine, and it will be a hard sell to convince 2/3 of the members of the House and Senate to limit the opportunities of Mainers to initiate ballot measures on wildlife issues.

But SAM and its allies, including the Maine Professional Guides Association and its leader Don Kleiner, are working hard on this. We will know the result sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The Campaign

I’m guessing that a minimum of $1.5 million will be needed to wage a successful campaign. And that campaign will be tricky. It won’t be easy to convince Maine voters that they should give up their opportunities to initiate changes in hunting and fishing laws.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.