In early November, Mainers will go to the polls to vote on three referendums - the CMP corridor, a transportation bond, and Question #3, an amendment to the state constitution commonly referred to as the Right to Food. The first two are clearly stated. The transportation bond even explains the cost to taxpayers. Then there’s Question #3 – Here’s how it will appear on the ballot:
“Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being? “
If there were contests to see how many words could be squeezed into one sentence (the verbal logjam competition) and how confusing the language could be (the ‘Clear as Mud’ competition), Question #3 might well take the prize in both.
Yet there’s no excuse for any of the amendment’s linguistic clutter. After all, to be on the ballot, a constitutional amendment had to be approved by two thirds of each branch of the Legislature, That’s a lot of Representatives and Senators, many with legislative experience, including the drafting of bills. Why couldn’t they come up with clearer language so we knew exactly what they were proposing? Surely, the sponsors of the original legislation must have had a better, more complete sense of what they were agreeing to than the ballot language states. Why didn’t they share it with us?
We can only guess what agenda is behind this amendment, though we do know that it must be concealed since it certainly is not apparent. Since the amendment is about rights, why not include others that are equally if not more important such as the right to clean water and air or the right to health care? Food is fine but not if you can’t breathe or are too sick to eat.
The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor, might have pointed us in the right direction when he commented in the current Maine Citizens Guide that “It means that people have the means to grow or produce food without government interference.” But is interference the same as regulation? And if so, what regulations should we oppose and why? Here’s where a few examples might help clarify Faulkingham’s meaning, but none are provided.
Rep. Faulkingham states that “People are hungry in every county and township across Maine. Above the national average, food insecurity in Maine hovers at around 14%. Maine has the highest food insecurity rate in New England.” Sources are not cited for these claims, but statistics are exceptionally prone to manipulation. While it may be true that 14% of Mainers have ‘food insecurity’ it would be equally true that 86% don’t. Faulkingham also asserts “people are hungry in Maine because they do not have sufficient income.” If that’s the case (and it very likely is) we could legitimately ask -why not focus on efforts to create better jobs with benefits and higher rates of pay and dispense with vague declarations?
A more telling concern is how can we know in advance what the amendment will allow or deny? The answer is we can’t because constitutional rights aren’t established until they go to court and are decided on the basis of a lawsuit. Because the amendment is a jumble of ambiguity instead of a clear statement of intent, all of us will ultimately have to pay for what should have been explicit with our hard-earned tax dollars – and it won’t be just one lawsuit, but a whole pandora’s box of them, costing time and money with practically no end in sight.
Declaring the Right to Food is very different from actually feeding people. Aside from government sources, a great deal of help comes from neighbors reaching out to neighbors through donations of time, energy, food and funds at local food banks and pantries often affiliated with houses of worship, town offices, and non-profits. Instead of high blown rhetoric and empty platitudes, Question #3 could have proposed a financial bond like Question #2 for transportation. Instead Question #3 doesn’t authorize a penny for the hungry or those families who could use a square meal.
Good legislation is straightforward, specific and easily understood. The Right to Food amendment is none of the above. Instead it’s a jumble of words and concepts and as clear as mud. It’s also a can of worms. Let’s put a lid on it by voting “No’ on Question #3.
Don Loprieno lives in Bristol