Two Democratic state legislators want to place stricter rules on the gathering of signatures on petitions that send ballot questions to voters.

State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, said their experiences with petitions, including the made-up signatures in Greene, justify more regulation.

Their bills will be heard in a public committee hearing Monday, Feb. 8 at the Statehouse.

Republicans, professional signature gatherers and successful petitioners said the system works well now and Democrats have a hidden agenda — to make it more difficult for citizens to overrule the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Charles Webster, chairman of the state Republican Party, said citizens need a way to overrule the Legislature because legislators like Berry are “out of touch with what the people want, what the working people want.”

Berry, House majority whip, said the current system creates an “incentive to lie and cheat” and he believes his bill will strengthen the citizen initiative process by increasing transparency and accountability.

Berry’s bill requires the secretary of state to make electronic lists of certified signatures from petitions; doubles the time a citizen has to examine petitions from five to 10 days; and allows signers who change their mind to ask to withdraw their names from the petition.

Nutting’s bill adds a fine for violating the current petition-gathering statute and prohibits a person convicted of fraud from circulating petitions for up to five years.

Both bills require anyone who is paid to circulate a petition and businesses that hire circulators to register with the state.

Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, has run two referendums, including last year’s successful overturning of the same-sex marriage law.

He said the electronic lists of petition-signers could end up being posted on the Internet for anyone to get names and addresses of people with whom they don’t agree. “For the life of me, I can’t understand that, unless you wanted to harass people,” said Mutty. “And we had a lot of cases of harassment [over the same-sex vote].”

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, is one of the leaders in the Still Fed Up With Taxes group that placed the tax reform bill on the June ballot, partly by using paid signature gatherers.

Trahan said the two bills, “are nothing but a political strategy to embarrass us … some people would like to make it more difficult to get signatures.”

The recent history of citizen initiatives and the people’s veto in Maine has often been to challenge the policies of Democrats, who have dominated state government for most of the past decade or more — the same period as the upsurge in citizen initiatives.

Petitions have sought to overturn Democratic Governor John Baldacci’s school consolidation bill, limit state spending and decrease taxes (multiple attempts), and veto same-sex marriage.

Berry insists he isn’t aiming to make it harder to place issues on the ballot, but he does believe some petition signers “are sold a bill of goods” or don’t look carefully at what they’re signing.

Stavros Mendros, a former legislator whose consulting business includes hiring signature gatherers, said more regulations would make it more difficult for local groups to gather signatures and easier for the well-oiled national operators to get more of Maine’s business.

The bills coming up for a hearing, he said, “are all about making it harder” to get an issue on the ballot.

“It’s a threat to the Legislature,” he said. “They want to be the only ones making laws, and they hate it when issues go to the voters.”

John Christie is the founder of and senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting based in Hallowell. The center is a nonprofit organization that provides nonpartisan in-depth reporting as a public service to its media partners. The e-mail address is mainecenter@gmail.com. The Web site is pinetreewatchdog.org.