and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
July 2002 #4

Legislators again thwart voters' will

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem Evening News
Monday, July 22, 2002 

Far be it from me, with my two divorces and live-together relationships, to defend the "Defense of Marriage" Act.

But the Massachusetts citizens who followed the rules and collected enough signatures to place their constitutional amendment before the Legislature should have had the required vote last Wednesday. Instead, the Legislature voted 137-53 to adjourn the Constitutional Convention for the rest of the year instead of voting on the merits, or lack thereof, of the amendment, which defines marriage as "between one man and one women" in an attempt to prevent gay civil unions.

Let me explain why this is important no matter how you feel about marriage, homosexuality, or gay unions:

The state constitution gives us, the citizens, the right to amend it or to create our own laws, if we follow the rules.

The rules for an initiative law (e.g. the income tax rollback) are simple: Get signatures, wait for legislators to either vote against petition or ignore it, get more signatures, then get on the ballot so the voters can decide.

Recently, of course, another step was added: The Legislature declares voters incompetent and repeals the statute they passed. And that is part of the larger problem that arises from recent legislative activity on the budget.

But right now we must focus on what has happened to our right to change the state constitution.

The rules for a constitutional amendment are simple too, if it's something that the Legislature wants, like the 1998 pay raise for itself -- a majority of legislators vote for it twice in constitutional convention, held in two different sessions with an election in between, and it goes on the ballot.

Now, if the voters want to amend the constitution to cut legislators' pay, it gets more complicated than it was for the Legislature to hike it. We, like the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, have to get the required signatures, then send our petition to two consecutive constitutional conventions for the support of at least 50 legislators.

This is the rule, based on an assumption that amending the constitution is serious stuff, and requires some (at least a quarter of the membership) legislative support. Of course, this was before it became obvious that most legislators are craven cowards who won't stand up for what they or their constituents believe, but will run like rats from a roll call vote on the substance of an issue.

The majority vote to adjourn the Constitutional Convention instead of voting on the Defense of Marriage Act was indefensible, and politically stupid if voters were paying attention.

Senate President Tom Birmingham, who presides over the convention, might have helped his gubernatorial ambitions if he had gone to the microphone and given the speech of his life in opposition to banning gay marriage. He'd have shown leadership and courage, which aren't bad qualities in a candidate.

Instead, he and his 107 followers, both Democrats and Republicans, made it clear they were afraid to stand up on a controversial issue.

They may have made a strategic mistake as well. The constitution requires a roll call vote on the amendment. If proponents go to court, they can argue that they didn't get it.

Birmingham will then respond that the vote to adjourn was the required vote. Proponents will then say fine, we got our 50 votes plus three more.

The Supreme Judicial Court could order the Defense of Marriage Act on to the next constitutional convention for its second vote; and if the same evasive tactics are used in 2004, the SJC could order the Secretary of State to put it on the ballot.

Then we voters could listen to the debate, which will get nasty, and that's too bad. There are valid points on both sides, but they would probably get lost in the mean-spirited gay-bashing and obnoxious gay defensiveness that we get from radicals on this issue.

Most people would see through this, however, and make a wise decision on the ballot question.

I wish we could let marriage be defined by how much personal responsibility partners of any sex are willing to take for each other and their natural or adopted children. Some traditional marriages might not make the grade, and it's time we discuss this.

Fifty-three legislators voted to obey the constitution and take the discussion to the voters. The majority, however, was too scared of the subject and too lacking in respect for their constituents to let us have a formal opinion.

Shame on the Legislature, and not for the first or last time.

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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