and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
July #1

Don't let your representatives on Beacon Hill
play you for a fool
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, July 6, 2006

Four score and seven years ago, give or take a year, our Massachusetts forefathers brought forth in the commonwealth the initiative petition process, which gives citizens the right to make or repeal laws and an opportunity to place constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot.

This new process empowered voters to bypass their elected representatives when said representatives chose not to represent them. Since 1918, voters have created scores of new laws on taxation, the environment, animal rights and "good government" issues. To do this, they collect signatures; if the Legislature refuses to pass the petition, it goes directly to a popular vote.

Voters can also collect signatures for a petition to amend the Constitution. This, however, requires "yea" votes from legislators in two consecutive constitutional conventions, at which House and Senate legislators meet together. Legislators can file their own amendments too, which must also be approved by voters on a statewide ballot. To get to that ballot, a legislative proposal needs a majority vote in each Constitutional Convention (ConCon); citizen petitions need only 50 of the 200 legislators to vote "Yea".

Legislative amendments supported by voters have enabled women to hold political office (1924), established town governments with town meetings (1926), prohibited discrimination against the handicapped (1980), and the Legislature's all-time favorite, gave lawmakers automatic pay raises every two years (1998).

Voter-initiated amendments are rare, because of the requirement for some legislative input. I personally have collected signatures on constitutional taxation and term limits. We always had our required 50 votes lined up, but legislative chicanery during the ConCon killed the petitions before the required roll call.

This also happened to people who collected signatures against gay marriage in 2001. The Legislature killed their proposed amendment by voting to adjourn before voting on the issue. Legislators who are afraid to vote directly against a petition seem to be comfortable with this technique, figuring that most voters won't grasp the sleight of hand.

Yes, we've gone to court. The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Legislature was wrong, but says it can't make legislators obey the Constitution. So I am explaining this to you so you are not one of those clueless voters politicians are counting on when the next ConCon convenes on July 12 to take up a new version of the marriage-issue petition.

I admire the Vote on Marriage activists who didn't quit. They collected the required signatures again in 2005 and are taking the petition to the ConCon floor next week. They have their 50 votes, but their opponents are urging the legislative leadership to again refuse to allow a fair vote on the issue.

I don't yet know my own position on gay marriage, but I'm absolutely clear on what I think of the procedure. Any activists who follows the rules that our forefathers created to empower voters are entitled, legally and morally, to get a vote on their petition.

With laws (statutes), the issues do get to the ballot; the Legislature can't stop them. This is why we have Proposition 2, the property tax limit that went into effect 25 years ago last week and is still protecting property owners. Our property taxes are still too high, though, and I'd like to do another petition to tighten up the limit, but the petition process itself is under assault.

A voter petition just like Prop 2 passed in 2000. It rolled back the income tax rate from 5.75 percent to 5 percent over three years. Instead of respecting it, as 1981 legislators respected Prop 2, today's legislators scorn the voters' will and refuse to obey it. So also last week, the Legislature passed a record state budget with the income tax rate still at 5.3 percent.

Both the House and Senate had passed a version of the rollback to 5 percent, but it disappeared in a budget conference committee. Both versions were useless to taxpayers, the House requiring a study and the Senate requiring a certain level of spending first; but they gave members a roll-call vote they can use to fool voters into thinking they support the 2000 voter mandate. You, at least, know the truth.

The truth is that the Legislature as a whole doesn't respect us voters and no wonder: we re-elect them no matter how badly they treat us. This doesn't make them like us; it simply deepens the contempt.

It's been expected that Senate President Robert Travaglini, who this year is chairman of the ConCon, will allow a vote on the marriage amendment. But it's a joint session, and House Speaker Sal DiMasi says he will do everything he can to prevent the vote. This could mean simply telling our representatives to stay home, so a quorum is never present.

Legislators, if they don't want you to vote on the issue, are constitutionally allowed to just say "nay" to the amendment on a roll-call vote. However, if the issue doesn't come up, you will know that your rep a.) is a coward about letting you know how he/she voted; or b.) is a craven lackey of the House leadership, pretending to be home sick.

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.