and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
July #3

Some in Legislature would like to see
citizen petitioners go away
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, July 21, 2005

Ah, the hazy, lazy days of summer.

Where did they go? All Iím looking at is the crazy days, as the Legislature prepares to leave for its August vacation.

As usual, major issues were left until the last minute, when constituents are distracted by summer.

Thereís a bill that contains a three-year-retroactive increase in the capital gains tax. People who thought their taxes were all paid for 2002 will be getting an unexpected bill for thousands of dollars. New Massachusetts slogan: come to Massachusetts to invest, if you can endure irrational, impulsive tax policies.

Senate Republicans attempted to add the income tax rollback to this bill, arguing that state tax revenues have increased, so far, $1.1 billion over last year. However, though the "temporary" income tax hike is now sixteen years old, and the ballot vote to cut the rate to 5% is almost five years old, they had to settle for another "phase-down" when and if a certain level is attained in various local aid accounts. I predict these accounts will always be a few pennies short until the next fiscal crisis raises our taxes again.

As if itís not bad enough that this initiative law is being ignored by the Legislature, the latest end-of-session outrage is the bill to kill the initiative petition process altogether.

Senate 2158 forbids the use of signature collectors who are paid by the signature, requires that all petitioners, including volunteers, sign the petition with their address and phone number and swear under penalty of perjury that they personally saw each person sign, and forces the Secretary of State to publish the names of all signers as soon as the petitions are turned into city and town halls for certification that they are registered voters.

If youíve never worked on a statewide petition drive, these provisions may not seem terribly burdensome. As one who has worked on eighteen of them, I assure you that this bill brings the petition process to an end, except perhaps for extremely well-funded organizations who can pay for all their signatures no matter what it costs. For the rest of us, who run traditional, mostly volunteer campaigns, it will soon be impossible to get a question on the ballot. And this, of course, is the point.

Most of the Legislature hates the petition process, which bypasses its authority and lets the voters make or repeal laws. Using the pretext of creating "anti-fraud safeguards," proponents of this bill make an already difficult process impossible, and give petition opponents the tools to harass signers.

Fraud has never been a problem with initiative petitions. People who sign the petitions always have the title and official summary, drafted by the Attorney General's office, in front of them. When the issue in on the ballot, voters have access to its language and pro/con arguments in the Secretary of Stateís voter information booklet.

Proponents of this bill argue that some people once signed a petition on gay marriage thinking it was a petition to prevent abuse of horses. If they did, they probably shouldnít be signing anything ever.

Petition forms are passed around, or laid out on tables at malls, with various people overseeing them. With the official summary on top, there is little enough space for signatures on each sheet; adding spaces for five petitioners fills up a whole section. People who are in charge of a table where several people are signing at once, must swear that each one was observed.

There was similar requirement until 1985, at the beginning of the Golden Age of House democracy. Speaker George Keverianís choice for Chairman of the Election Laws Committee, John Businger, quickly moved to repeal the provision. Businger, a liberal, supported the petition process for liberal and environmental groups, and therefore for all of us. He also realized that this provision just encouraged perjury and disrespect for the law. Though heís no longer a legislator, he called me to offer his assistance in defeating this new law.

The Secretary of State, William Galvin, is also opposing the bill. His main concern is that once the names of signers is published, they can be harassed by opponents of the petitions. Right now, when you sign a petition, your privacy is protected, and opponents can't see the names unless there is a court challenge of some sort.

During such a challenge to the income tax rollback petition, opponents annoyed and subpoenaed innocent petitioners; they even pretended to be me when people called to complain. If this bill passes, eventually citizens will stop signing petitions, and the process will be dead. No more will you get to vote on tax, environmental, animal rights, "good government" and other reform issues.

Everyone knows that the pressure behind the passage of this bill comes from the gay lobby, that wants to keep the "defense of marriage" petition from getting its signatures this fall. Better gay activists should use their energy to convince voters to support their position, instead of insulting voters by implying they can't tell gay marriage from horse abuse.

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.