and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column

Initiative petition process ain't what it used to be
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Though we all believe in hope, at some point optimism becomes delusion; we are past that point here in Massachusetts.

When I arrived in 1971, the taxes seemed strange to someone who had lived in four other states. It took a while to connect this with the political culture and its odd little corruptions.

As I saw Salem for the first time, thrilled by proximity to 19th-century literary genius, we passed Salem State College. This is where, I was told, the library was built without taking into account the weight of the books. Looking back, I have often thought that this was the moment I should have cried: "Turn around, take me back to Pennsylvania!"

Several construction scandals later, I began to see a pattern of malfeasance. I treasure my T-shirt that reads, "I survived the Massachusetts Miracle," left over from the Dukakis administration. I need one that asks, "Together, can we survive the Patrick administration?"

I thought we could, but am tired of waiting for the pension reform package, not to mention the property tax relief.

When I started my career as a taxpayer activist, Salem's Kevin Harrington was Senate president and Tom McGee of Lynn was House speaker. They were tough, but I call those "the good old days." For later history, you can read "The Brothers Bulger" by Howie Carr, which will bring you up to date on commonwealth scandal to the current "Age of House Speakers who Barely Avoid Prison Terms."

The state's fiscal strategy has been the same for as long as I've known it: During good economic times, spend yourself into fiscal crisis; in the economic downturns, raise taxes; then start over with the overspending.

One of the major reasons for this now is our one-party system, in which Democratic incumbents rarely feel threatened by Republican challengers, no matter how viable they would be in another state. So the members of the majority party do whatever they want in their own best interest.

This is the fault of the voters, who are taken in by the power of incumbency almost every time. I still don't understand why this is more true in Massachusetts than in other states, but it's the root of all our problems.

However, we Bay State voters have had one advantage that citizens of half the other states don't the initiative petition process. Despite their penchant for re-electing politicians who treat them badly, most voters were usually able to make intelligent decisions directly on issues through ballot questions or at least so I thought and have often said.

Of course I've been focused on those issues with which I was directly involved, like the voters' creation of Proposition 2, repealing a legislative pay raise in 1988, term limits in 1994 (later thrown out by the courts), the income-tax rollback in 2000, and the defeat of the graduated income tax several times.

Good job, voters!

But together we made some bad decisions, too: I voted in 1974 to allow highway taxes to be used for mass transit (no one told us this would mean that roads and bridges would deteriorate), and to cut the size of the House from 240 to 160 members. (They told us it would save money; instead it consolidated power in the House leadership.)

There were some issues that I got right and the majority got wrong (in my humble opinion): The property tax classification amendment in 1978, declining the opportunity to repeal the prevailing wage law in 1988, rejecting repeal of the Dukakis tax hikes in 1990, and giving the Legislature constitutionally guaranteed pay raises in 1998.

Until the last election I thought: Win some, lose some, and continued to revere the initiative process.

But now I wonder if voters still deserve it. In 2000 they had sense enough to reject a petition to shut down greyhound racing; in 2008 they passed it. Despite a 1978 ballot question that sends a voter information booklet to each voter, not enough people read the opposition arguments or gave any thought to what would happen to the greyhounds when they lost their jobs.

The racetracks and their unions ran a poor campaign, focusing on track workers instead of the dogs. Animal lovers believed proponents' stories of abuse, though greyhound owners are among the most responsible dog owners in the state.

In Massachusetts, the industry is carefully regulated and retiring racers cannot be euthanized; when this new law goes into effect, they will be shipped to other states or kept here to compete with other dogs for adoption. Because of effective greyhound adoption programs, they may be OK; but other dogs will die in their place.

The situation is worse than it might be because of the recession, in which people who are losing their homes or their jobs are giving their pets to shelters. The last things these abandoned animals need is competition from unemployed racing dogs.

Voters didn't intend to hurt Fido. The law should be placed back on the 2010 ballot by legislators, which should also encourage everyone to learn the truth about the issue before the next statewide election. Then maybe the voters can redeem themselves, and the greyhounds.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.