Local legislators are sharply divided on a bill that would add restrictions to statewide citizen-initiated petition drives.

Republicans claim the bill, LD 1730, is the Democrats’ response to a petition drive last year that forced the scheduled June referendum on whether to repeal a bill to lower the state income tax but to extend the sales tax to a variety of services. Democrats backed the tax revamping bill while Republicans opposed it.

Democrats say LD 1730 is simply an effort to reduce fraud in petition gathering.

The state Senate voted 20-14 on March 22 to approve LD 1730. The three Republican state senators from the Midcoast – Sens. Christopher Rector of Thomaston, A. David Trahan of Waldoboro and Carol Weston of Montville – voted against LD 1730.

“I think it would make petitioning government more difficult,” Trahan said. “It was no coincidence that the son of the sponsor of the bill, Sen. [John] Nutting, was the treasurer of the political action committee that raised money to block our recent citizen veto to repeal the sales tax expansion.”

Rector also criticized the bill.

“This bill had a variety of changes that offered little in terms of improving the system but which would set in statute ‘tweaks’ that would make the process substantially more difficult,” Rector said. “The proponents argued that they were seeking to maintain the integrity of the system, and yet the system has repeatedly proven to be sound. Recently,¬†those who have returned forged signatures and other similar violations¬†have been vigorously¬†prosecuted as they should be.”

Rector said the bar is already quite high for a petition drive, requiring a substantial number of signatures in a relatively short period after the Legislature takes final action.

The House has yet to vote on the petition measure. But local Democratic representatives voiced support for the bill.

Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, said he supports the bill, which he expected the House would vote on later on Tuesday, March 23 or Wednesday, March 24.

Mazurek said the bill offers transparency in the petition gathering process.

Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, agreed that the proposed law would offer transparency.

“I think this is a very important bill,” Welsh said. “It improves transparency of the petition gathering effort and will help prevent fraud. Too often we’ve had petitions circulated by people who may not be citizens of Maine and who are paid for each signature they gather. Although this bill will not prevent paid collectors it will help ensure that, per our constitution, circulators are Maine voters. The citizen petition is an important part of our civil rights and this bill will help assure the integrity of the process.”

Petitioners would have to number their petition papers sequentially and the circulators would have to initial each page of the petitions. The petitions would have to be signed and notarized before being turned in to the municipal clerks for verification of signatures. The clerks would also be required to photocopy the petitions before they returned them to the circulators who would file the originals with the Maine Department of the Secretary of State.

The bill would require that anyone who was paid for collecting signatures or who was paying for the collection of signatures register with the Maine Department of the Secretary of State.

In Maine, citizens who seek to enact a law by referendum or to repeal a law approved by the Legislature need to collect the signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the people who voted in the last election for governor. Currently, that would require the signatures of 55,000 registered Maine voters.

For a citizen initiative to enact a law, petitioners have 18 months to gather the signatures to get it on the ballot. For a people’s veto to repeal a law, petitioners have 90 days from when the Legislature adjourns in the session in which the law was approved.

The March 22 vote in the state Senate was along party lines with no Democrats opposed and no Republicans in support of LD 1730.