The Lowell Sun
Monday, April 12, 1999
Getting tax cut on the ballot
harder than getting it passed
By JULIE JETTE
Sun Statehouse Bureau
BOSTON -- Gov. Paul Cellucci spent eight years making laws in the state
Legislature, but now he's threatening to take his plan to cut the income tax to the people
via the state ballot since legislative leaders have pooh-poohed the idea.
And if Cellucci begins gathering the 57,100 signatures needed to get the tax cut
on the November 1999 ballot, he will find himself in the middle of a process that has
become far less populist than originally intended, and just as complex as a battle inside
The Republican governor has been stymied by the Democratic leaders of the House
and Senate in his efforts to further shrink the income tax from 5.95 to 5 percent.
Cellucci's threat may force the hands of House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate
President Thomas Birmingham, whose members are generally allergic to ballot questions.
"When you take ballot questions, you're taking everything and boiling it down
to a bumper sticker," said state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams and chairman of
the Government Regulations Committee. "I don't think most (legislators) like ballot
But Bosley also thinks the Legislature is unlikely to respond to Cellucci's threat
by giving him the tax cut he wants.
That means a potentially long, complicated ballot road.
The state legislators who amended the state's constitution in 1918 to allow
citizens to directly enact laws probably did not imagine how complex, costly and litigious
ballot campaigns would become more than 80 years later.
Barbara Anderson, executive director for Citizens
for Limited Taxation and Government, has seen her recent initiatives
challenged and tied up in court as opponents dispute everything from language to the
validity of signatures.
And that all happens before the questions make it to the voters.
Both Anderson's efforts and those of liberal groups
have met with court challenges from opponents. Occasionally, Anderson has teamed up with
political enemies to protect their ability to get questions on the ballot.
James Braude, who helped spearhead the failed attempt to repeal the state's
electricity deregulation law, said, "The litigiousness of corporate types has caused
this to become a much more difficult process for ordinary people to become involved
Utility companies challenged the Campaign for Fair Electric rates on the validity
of their signatures and the fact that some of their signature sheets bore the campaign's
The state's Supreme Judicial Court has become increasingly strict about keeping
signature papers free of markings.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office certifies signatures on
petitions, has been forced to take a hard line on the signature sheets because of SJC
Galvin said he disagreed with the stringency of some of the court's rulings but
would have to abide by them unless it revisits the issue.
"This whole process has become very high-stakes and very refined,"
Galvin said. "It's almost become a niche law practice."
One attorney who has built part of his practice on ballot initiatives is Thomas
Kiley, former assistant attorney general under former Attorney General Francis X.
Kiley, who has written more than a dozen initiatives for Massachusetts ballots,
said there's a good reason to make the process complex.
"If you're going to impose rules of conduct on the ways others act, there
ought to be some safeguards," he said. "It's a hard process, but it ought to be
a hard process."
Kiley and others familiar with initiatives say that the problem with many recent
initiatives is that they are so complex that they are better handled by the Legislature.
"The process is best suited to the simplest proposals," he said.
"The more complex the statute, the more the need for the give and take that occurs in
the legislative process."
Initiative critics can point at numerous examples.
At least a dozen bills have been filed to alter the anti-trapping provisions of a
wildlife protection initiative that passed in 1996. The law to repeal electricity
deregulation would have unraveled 18 months worth of work in the Legislature.
The Legislature has at least one weapon against initiatives it does not want to
keep, however. Voters cannot force lawmakers to fund initiatives that require an
That may kill the so-called Clean Elections initiative, which would have provided
public campaign financing to candidates who agree to strict spending limits.
The question passed with 58 percent of the vote. But even the measure's proponents
admit it needs work, and so far neither the governor nor the Legislature have shown any
interest in funding it.
"No one's talking about it," said Rep. Thomas A. Golden, D-Lowell.
One thing is clear: Success on the ballot has become increasingly expensive.
The organization that supported keeping the state's electricity deregulation law
spent $8.17 million to get its message out; Braude's Campaign for Fair Electric Rates
spent only $285,945.
All told, groups spent $10 million pushing for the approval or defeat of three of
the four questions on last November's ballot.
"Business people with loads of money have come to the conclusion that it is
much cheaper to buy a law than to buy legislators," Braude asserted.
How much money Cellucci would have to raise to get his tax cut passed remains to
be seen. In the months since his campaign, however, his fund-raising machine has continued
at an earnest clip.
Anderson, whose group will work to support the tax
cut, said, "If we're out there getting signatures and the Cellucci team is out there,
we'll get enough to withstand a challenge, and the Legislature should be aware of