Distress signals came from Beacon Hill, Buzzards Bay
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

So there it was, the last week of the 2010 legislative session, a time nearly all political activists are standing by expecting legislative mischief. For most of my anti-political career, I didn't go on vacation until the legislators did.

But this year, the Legislature seemed to be focused on the casino gambling issue, which it's been discussing only since sometime in the Weld administration. It reminded me of the sort of thing people do to appear busy when they don't know what to do about the really important things.

Say you need to clean out the garage, but this requires big decisions, like do you finally get rid of the exercise bike and old aquarium tank. So instead of starting the garage project, you find you must polish the brass umbrella stand in the hallway, or Google new recipes that use fresh-market produce.

The recession continues, the state budget is in deficit and cities and towns are complaining about the need for more control over employee benefits; so the Legislature, not knowing what to do about these things, gets itself bogged down in the continuing debate over gambling, taking only a moment out to repeal the Electoral College or something.

I wasn't on vacation, but the two other Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) staffers were gone: Chip Faulkner was attending a conference in Kentucky with Americans for Tax Reform; and Chip Ford was taking his annual sailing vacation before the August hurricane season. Every year he heads up or down the coast in his little red sailboat which is rigged so he can comfortably sail it alone; this year he decided to take it through the Cape Cod Canal for the first time.

"Chip Ahoy" is a 22-footer that he found eight years ago in a barnyard and lovingly restored, while paying the Massachusetts sales tax and the annual excise, unlike Sen. Kerry who finally paid his fair share only after he got caught trying to shelter his 76-foot yacht in yacht-tax-free Rhode Island.

Soon after Chip left, I heard from Christen Varley of the Boston Tea Party about a proposed constitutional amendment attacking the initiative petition process, that was on the agenda of the Constitutional Convention (ConCon) scheduled for last Thursday, July 29.

There have been several anti-petition amendments over the years filed with the Election Laws Committee, where they get an "ought-not-to-pass" report after activists across the political spectrum testify against them. So I wasn't worried, especially since the Legislature really didn't have time to get bogged down in a long debate in the ConCon last week as the legislative session was ending. Varley, however, was not reassured.

I soon received a memo she wrote for the Coalition for Marriage and Families, which noted the language of the amendment: "The rights to freedom and equality; the right of each individual to be protected by society in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property ..." cannot be the subject of an initiative petition. She warned that "if approved, this broad, undefined language would guarantee that virtually no initiative petition could pass muster, since all laws or public policy proposals have some impact on life, liberty or property."

Clearly it would block petitions on tax cuts or illegal immigration. Then I discovered that the amendment was coming out of the Judiciary Committee, not Election Laws, with a "favorable" report.

The warning bells went off: Some anti-initiative petition legislators were trying to sneak something past initiative activists. I found out later this has become a new tactic on Beacon Hill: Filing bills in unexpected committees so no one will notice them and testify against them at the hearing.

Alone, I am able to contact CLT activists and the media, but I couldn't quickly reach the 200 legislators who were about to go into the ConCon to vote on this amendment.

Technology to the rescue! This vacation Chip Ford set up a Wi-Fi connection on his laptop, on the boat, with his home computer; he sent the legislators' e-mail addresses to me and I let them know we had been alerted to the planned ambush. I called the House and Senate minority leaders, Brad Jones and Rich Tisei, who prepared to do battle. The North Shore Tea Party also sent out an alert.

Once spotted, the legislative leadership decided not to have a ConCon last week after all, and the "constitutional crisis" was over.

Later that day I got a call from Chip to tell me his boat was about to sink in Buzzards Bay, where a strong canal current and southwest winds were causing eight-foot waves that kept him from reading his wet charts with salt-encrusted glasses. He called to say goodbye, which I would have taken more seriously if he hadn't added that, darn, he was too embattled to get his camera out to capture the highest waves.

I called his friend Wally on the Cape, who read from his own dry charts to Chip on his cellphone, guiding him to safe harbor. Another crisis averted. Another day in the life.

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.

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