The Boston Globe
Saturday, January 22, 2000
Firms seek to buy their own laws
By Frank Phillips
Big-money donors and corporations are pouring money into Massachusetts to create
sweeping laws through the ballot process, a development that is alarming reformers who say
the initiative petition system is being corrupted.
"You used to just buy a car or electronic equipment, but now you can buy a
law," said George Pillsbury, executive director of the Massachusetts Money and
Politics Project, a group that monitors campaign financing and expenditures.
George Soros, a New York financier, and two wealthy donors from Ohio and Arizona
contributed nearly $400,000 to hire signature gatherers to win a spot on the ballot for a
drug measure. Their initiative would allow low-level drug dealers to receive treatment
instead of jail time, and make it tougher for law enforcement officials to seize assets
from those accused of drug crimes.
AT&T Corp. has so far given $1 million to a campaign to fight a ballot measure
that would require cable companies to open their lines to competitors. Grace Internet
Capital, the owner of several Internet companies, spent $600,000 to get the law on the
ballot next November.
Fidelity Investments, which is trying to promote charitable giving, spent $175,000
to win a spot for a state income tax deduction for charitable donations. Putnam
Investments kicked in another $25,000.
Government watchdogs say they are alarmed at the role corporations and
out-of-state financial interests are playing in the upcoming election, bypassing the
Legislature and its public hearing process.
In fact, this election cycle appears to mark the completion of a shift that began
in 1994 and transformed the initiative petition process from voluntary citizens' efforts
to well-financed operations of paid signature gatherers.
Even antitax leader Barbara Anderson
and her followers, once the model for citizen participation in the initiative process, had
to rely on Governor Paul Cellucci and other Republicans to rais funds to pay a
Nevada firm $100,000 to collect signatures for the measure to roll back the state income
tax. A citizens' effort in 1998 failed to gather enough signatures to qualify.
The only true grass-roots drive to win a ballot spot this cycle appears to be the
campaign to ban dog racing in Massachusetts. Those advocates gathered 83,526 signatures --
well above the necessary 57,000 required to qualify for the ballot -- but only spent $330
to do so.
Pillsbury said the initiative petition process was created early in the last
century to allow citizens frustrated by legislative inaction to take their cases directly
to the voters.
But he said the framers of the constitutional amendment made the process
"intentionally burdensome" so that it would not be used frivolously. He said
they also envisioned it to be a voluntary citizens' enterprise.
"Now what we're seeing with these professional signature-gathering firms is
the burden removed," Pillsbury said. ...
"We have to go back to the framers' original intentions, that it be only a
bona fide citizens' movement," Pillsbury said.
Saturday, January 22, 2000
Special interest groups spending big bucks
for signature gathering
By Jean Mcmillan
BOSTON (AP) When lawmakers established the ballot initiative process 82 years ago,
it was meant to be a way for ordinary citizens to get laws passed through grassroots
But critics say the process is being warped to the point where deep-pocketed
corporations are buying new laws.
Financial filings turned in this week show corporations have spent wads of cash,
in one case more than $4 per signature, to collect petition signatures to get proposed
laws on the November ballot.
"Corporations with large special interests are really transforming the
citizen initiative petition process into another marketplace where they can attempt to buy
a law as if it were anothe consumer item," said George Pillsbury, director of
the nonprofit Massachusetts Money and Politics Project.
There are no laws prohibiting businesses or other groups from using paid signature
gatherers. But there's no guarantee the groups that spend the most will be successful. A
minimum of 57,100 certified signatures of registered voters are required for a referendum
question to be considered.
Fidelity Investments paid $146,000, or $2.13 each, to have 68,478 signatures
gathered in its quest to create a state tax deduction for people who give money to
charity, according to an analysis by Pillsbury's group.
The Committee for Forfeiture Reform, backed by billionaire philanthropist George
Soros and two other wealthy out-of-towners, spent an average of $4.21 per certified
signature to people who stand outside grocery stores and in shopping malls rounding up
The signature gathering burden was meant to ensure the measures had broad-based
Instead, Pillsbury claims, the ballot questions aimed at getting around the
Legislature are often confusing to voters, who may be swayed one way or another by
high-priced marketing campaigns.
"Laws are for sale when the public doesn't know what they are voting
on," Pillsbury said.
The question that may be the least understood to the public could prove the
costliest referendum battle in state history. The fight is being waged by Internet
companies wanting access to the high-speed cable networks.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Consumer Choice and Competition on the Internet is
being spearheaded by venture capitalist Christopher Grace, who sold his company to America
Online for $72.8 million.
Grace has spent more than $600,000 on promoting the referendum, including $188,775
to Spoon Works of Brookline to gather signatures.
"This is a rich businessman hijacking the ballot box for his own financial
interest," said Maria Farrah John, of the Consumer and Internet Providers for
Technology Competition, which is opposing the measure.
However, AT&T ponied up more than $1.1 million so far to Massachusetts and
California for advertising and consulting firms to fight efforts for access to high-speed
Grace did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
"The process was different this year, certainly not all petitions, but there
was a greater use of paid signature gatherers than at any time that I can remember,"
said lawyer Thomas Kiley who has been involved in the ballot initiative process since
Gov. Paul Cellucci paid Nevada-based National Voter Outreach $95,677 to gather
signatures, along with volunteers from the Republican State Committee and the Citizens for Limited Taxation for a ballot
question to roll back the income tax to 5 percent.
In a previous effort, an all-volunteer force failed to get enough of a cushion of
signatures and was knocked off the ballot. Cellucci and other supporters weren't going to
let that happen again, as they took in more than 150,000 signatures this time around.
Grey2K apparently was the least-funded of the signature-gathering efforts, but it
had emotion on its side. The group reported spending $330 for its 83,526 certified
signatures to get a referendum banning dog racing.
Barbara Anderson, who heads Citizens for Limited
Taxation, has been a volunteer collector of signatures since 1977 for a variety of
She said well-financed opponents, such as the
teachers union that helped to knock her tax-cut question off the ballot in 1998, have
prompted groups like hers to turn to paid signatures gathers.
"The whole point is not who's getting the
signatures, it's who's voting for it," she said.
But Pillsbury disagreed.
"It's about laws being put on the auction block in Massachusetts," he
With BC-Signatures for Sale?
By Associated Press
The following is a list of ballot question groups, the amount they spent on
gathering signatures, number of signatures, and price per signature:
Committee for Affordable Healthcare Choices, Coalition for Healthcare; $50,000;
67,095; 75 cents
Commuter Tax Relief; $180,000; 70,834; $2.54
Protect Children from Pesticides, 69,256 signatures, No committee filed
Tax Rollback Committee, Promise to Keep 5 percent;
$100,819; 87,723; $1.15
Mass. Coalition for Consumer Choice and Competition on the Internet, $188,775;
Grey2K; $330, 78,342; less than a penny
Committee for Forfeiture Reform; $318,000, 75,570; $4.21
Committee to Encourage Charitable Giving; $146,000, 68,478; $2.13