Four score and seven years ago, give or take a year,
our Massachusetts forefathers brought forth in the commonwealth the
initiative petition process, which gives citizens the right to make or
repeal laws and an opportunity to place constitutional amendments on the
This new process empowered voters to bypass their elected
representatives when said representatives chose not to represent them.
Since 1918, voters have created scores of new laws on taxation, the
environment, animal rights and "good government" issues. To do this,
they collect signatures; if the Legislature refuses to pass the
petition, it goes directly to a popular vote.
Voters can also collect signatures for a petition to amend the
Constitution. This, however, requires "yea" votes from legislators in
two consecutive constitutional conventions, at which House and Senate
legislators meet together. Legislators can file their own amendments
too, which must also be approved by voters on a statewide ballot. To get
to that ballot, a legislative proposal needs a majority vote in each
Constitutional Convention (ConCon); citizen petitions need only 50 of
the 200 legislators to vote "Yea".
Legislative amendments supported by voters have enabled women to hold
political office (1924), established town governments with town meetings
(1926), prohibited discrimination against the handicapped (1980), and
the Legislature's all-time favorite, gave lawmakers automatic pay raises
every two years (1998).
Voter-initiated amendments are rare, because of the requirement for some
legislative input. I personally have collected signatures on
constitutional taxation and term limits. We always had our required 50
votes lined up, but legislative chicanery during the ConCon killed the
petitions before the required roll call.
This also happened to people who collected signatures against gay
marriage in 2001. The Legislature killed their proposed amendment by
voting to adjourn before voting on the issue. Legislators who are afraid
to vote directly against a petition seem to be comfortable with this
technique, figuring that most voters won't grasp the sleight of hand.
Yes, we've gone to court. The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the
Legislature was wrong, but says it can't make legislators obey the
Constitution. So I am explaining this to you so you are not one of those
clueless voters politicians are counting on when the next ConCon
convenes on July 12 to take up a new version of the marriage-issue
I admire the Vote on Marriage activists who didn't quit. They collected
the required signatures again in 2005 and are taking the petition to the
ConCon floor next week. They have their 50 votes, but their opponents
are urging the legislative leadership to again refuse to allow a fair
vote on the issue.
I don't yet know my own position on gay marriage, but I'm absolutely
clear on what I think of the procedure. Any activists who follows the
rules that our forefathers created to empower voters are entitled,
legally and morally, to get a vote on their petition.
With laws (statutes), the issues do get to the ballot; the Legislature
can't stop them. This is why we have Proposition 2½, the property tax
limit that went into effect 25 years ago last week and is still
protecting property owners. Our property taxes are still too high,
though, and I'd like to do another petition to tighten up the limit, but
the petition process itself is under assault.
A voter petition just like Prop 2½ passed in 2000. It rolled back the
income tax rate from 5.75 percent to 5 percent over three years. Instead
of respecting it, as 1981 legislators respected Prop 2½, today's
legislators scorn the voters' will and refuse to obey it. So also last
week, the Legislature passed a record state budget with the income tax
rate still at 5.3 percent.
Both the House and Senate had passed a version of the rollback to 5
percent, but it disappeared in a budget conference committee. Both
versions were useless to taxpayers, the House requiring a study and the
Senate requiring a certain level of spending first; but they gave
members a roll-call vote they can use to fool voters into thinking they
support the 2000 voter mandate. You, at least, know the truth.
The truth is that the Legislature as a whole doesn't respect us voters —
and no wonder: we re-elect them no matter how badly they treat us. This
doesn't make them like us; it simply deepens the contempt.
It's been expected that Senate President Robert Travaglini, who this
year is chairman of the ConCon, will allow a vote on the marriage
amendment. But it's a joint session, and House Speaker Sal DiMasi says
he will do everything he can to prevent the vote. This could mean simply
telling our representatives to stay home, so a quorum is never present.
Legislators, if they don't want you to vote on the issue, are
constitutionally allowed to just say "nay" to the amendment on a
roll-call vote. However, if the issue doesn't come up, you will know
that your rep a.) is a coward about letting you know how he/she voted;
or b.) is a craven lackey of the House leadership, pretending to be home
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News, Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.