Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
June 2001 #1

The seat belt debate:
Legislature decided to treat us like grown-ups, at least for a day

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem Evening News
Friday, June 1, 2001

Now that was a debate, democracy in action in our very own Massachusetts House of Representatives: Seventy-six votes in favor of primary enforcement of seat belt use, and 76 against. The tie meant that primary enforcement did not get a majority, and so it was defeated; busybody advocates, however, are expected to try again soon.

I seem to remember a 76-76 vote in the House many years ago, on a destructive amendment to Proposition 2 1/2. The tie vote saved the taxpayers' day.

Issues that arise from initiative petitions or referendums often seem to get the attention of legislators and inspire serious debate on Beacon Hill. Prop 2 1/2 was a 1980 initiative petition that cut and limited property taxes.

A few years later when the Legislature passed the first seat belt law, a referendum to repeal it also went to the ballot. My present partner, Chip Ford, led that repeal effort. He was a sign painter who specialized in boat lettering and had just returned to the North Shore from several years living freedom on a boat in the Florida Keys.

He had survived storms at sea and a long manhunt for a criminal who stole his boat, and he didn't need to be told by nanny state to wear a seat belt. So when talkmaster Jerry Williams of WRKO called for repeal of the law, Chip volunteered for the signature drive and agreed to lead the ballot campaign on the condition that he would never have to do any public speaking.

I first met him at a Kennedy Library forum on that fall's ballot questions, where he was, of course, publicly speaking against the seat belt law.

On that November's ballot, the seat belt law was repealed. For the next few years, adults got to make their own decisions about their personal safety.

Then the busybody advocates got the Legislature to pass the seat belt law again. Once again, Chip put a repeal referendum on the ballot.

I was campaigning that year against a ballot question creating a graduated income tax, so I often heard him warn during debates that the next step would be primary enforcement, that eventually drivers would be stopped just because they weren't wearing a seat belt. Advocates not only promised that this would never happen, they scoffed at the very suggestion.

It's called incrementalism: Advocates get their busy little feet in the door, then their whole busy bodies, and pretty soon our freedom is crowded out. For some reason voters let the feet in by voting to keep the seat belt law. Now it's time for advocates to break the promise -- in fact, to deny that they ever made one.

Yes, Chip says it's the same people he debated years ago. They think we're so stupid, that we've forgotten their pledge, which shouldn't surprise us: They think we're too stupid to make our own decisions on seat belts too.

Personally, I think it is kind of dumb not to wear a seat belt, under most circumstances. Primary enforcers will never fine Chip and me because we buckle up; we are grown-ups, we are smart.

We oppose the primary enforcement law because it is yet another broken promise, another sign of disrespect for voters, another busybody attempt to control the grown-up population. And this week we celebrate those 76 House members, including Salem's Mike Ruane, Ipswich's Brad Hill, Lynn's Tom McGee, Marblehead's Doug Petersen, Peabody's John Slattery, and Danvers' Ted Speliotis, who voted to not treat their constituents like children.

I'd like to mention local senators too, but the cowardly Senate didn't have a roll call so we don't know how they voted on this controversial issue.

Respect for voters, freedom and constitutional rights may yet lose in the House when the issue is reconsidered, possibly next week. But for one vote, on one issue, democracy and genuine debate were seen and heard on Beacon Hill.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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