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Barbara's Column
September 2003 #3

Petition process provides rare breath of Bay State democracy
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, September 18, 2003

Every two years, in the course of citizen events, we Bay State voters get to sign initiative petitions to put our own laws on the ballot at the next election.

Only 24 states allow the initiative petition process; we are lucky to be one of them. It's the closest we can come to democracy in Massachusetts in the year 2003.

To those who have filed petitions this year: We who have been there and done that salute you.

I thought the petition process might be in a coma this season, after what was recently done to successful ballot questions by the Legislature: the income tax rate rollback frozen at 5.3 percent; the charitable deduction no longer deducted; "clean elections" repealed by lawmakers without even a roll call to put our "representatives" on the record.

Until the Legislature finally gets its comeuppance from insulted voters, we must keep the initiative process alive by stopping when we see a petition being circulated and reading its official summary.

My own policy is to sign those I agree with, and not sign the ones I disagree with. If I'm unsure, I'll sign anyway just to get the issue to the ballot for further discussion.

The state constitution requires proponents to collect signatures from now until mid-November, so you may find petitioners at the mall, convenience stores, community meetings and the town dump.

Here are the issues that have qualified for further circulation and possible inclusion on next year's ballot:

1.  An act to ensure whale-safe commercial fishing. As a knee-jerk animal lover, I often go for these save-the-whales, beavers, Bambi petitions initially, then reconsider later. On this one I am torn between concern for the whales and concern for endangered fishermen.

Nevertheless, I plan to sign it to encourage a ballot discussion unless my partner, Chip Ford, drags me away. He won't let me forget the flooded yards and coyote-eaten cats that resulted from my anti-trapping vote.

2.  Motor vehicle tax relief act. This petition would repeal the auto excise tax, which, like the income tax rate hike, was meant to be temporary. I know the cities and towns really count on the money to spend, but I figure Massachusetts owes me the income tax cut I voted for and didn't yet get, so I'll sign this one.

3.  Massachusetts toll limitation and reform act. Turnpike and bridge tolls are another "temporary" expense imposed on drivers. I'll sign this every time the "free the pike" groups take to the streets.

4.  A law to allow local school officials to set graduation requirements. Like local school officials did such a great job before MCAS! They had their chance; I support MCAS accountability and will not be signing this. The amount of money that goes to education seems to give an unfair advantage to teachers' unions over other local unions, so public safety has its own petition this year:

5.  An act providing binding arbitration for firefighters and police officers. This one returns a version of the compulsory binding arbitration that was repealed by Proposition 2 in 1980. If you sign this one, start saving up now for giant property tax hikes in case it passes. Money would move from other municipal services as two city/town departments get a negotiating advantage, and Prop 2 overrides would multiply.

Because the public sets public safety as a priority, policemen and firemen are generally treated fairly on pay issues, so this petition is unnecessary. I wish we could have a petition drive to fund non-education municipal services with the property tax, while funding education through vouchers supported by existing broad-based state taxes. However, initiative rules do not allow this. And first we would have to get rid of the institutional waste that is presently funded by these taxes.

6.  An act to provide voters with more ballot choices. Talk about misleading titles. I'm sure we would all like more ballot choices, but you won't find them here; read the summary before you sign anything. This should be called "an act to give unions more ability to throw their weight around the primary elections" by letting existing candidates represent a pro-union party as well as the Democratic Party.

If you are really interested in more ballot choices, Common Cause is working on an intriguing bill that lets voters number their candidates so if their first choice doesn't make the cut, the second choice gets the vote. This could be a ballot question someday and would be worth discussing.

Along with the above six laws, there are two proposed constitutional amendments on the streets: one for universal health care again, and another to allow the people of Massachusetts to "exercise their right of self-government through a federal union of democratic nations." Common sense tells me to avoid them both.

Motor Vehicle Tax Relief Act of 2004
Jack E. Robinson
Axe The Auto Tax Committee
P.O. Box 235
Boston, MA 02130
(781) 934-6755

Massachusetts Toll Limitation, Accountability and Reform Act
Alisia Jezierny

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

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