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CLT Update
Friday, November 12, 1999


The Initiative Petition Process: Under Assault

"A voter might be intrigued by any one question but it takes a legislator who's cognizant of all the other factors in state government to evaluate it in context."

Imperious Maximus
House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran

"A legislator who's cognizant of all the other factors..."?

Geez, surely he doesn't mean like the sheep in his House and in the Senate who blindly voted for a 706-page, $20.86 billion budget only hours after the 133-day-late document was approved by their herders in his legislative leadership? He doesn't really mean that kind of superior cognizance, does he?

"Cognizant," like always looking for more money to grab for themselves any way they can?

It's unfortunate that we simple dummy citizens, we the unwashed masses, just don't measure up to his personal standard of acceptable intelligence, that we're so downright stupid in his estimation that we can't think for ourselves. Apparently that's why he believes we should feel such gratitude for having him, a great Philosopher King, around to guide and shepherd us too.

But the Initiative and Referendum is a constitutionally provided and protected right of the citizens -- just like a salary and automatic pay raises for legislators now are. They can't simply repeal the right by decree, by legislative fiat, as much as they'd like to.

Unless they can amend it, they've got to learn to live within the constitution.

Such restraint must be difficult for a Philosopher King.

CFord-Sig2.gif (4854 bytes)

Chip Ford

The Boston Globe
Friday, November 12, 1999

Beacon Hill takes on initiatives
Critics: Amendments usurp will of people

By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff

The Legislature's moves this week to radically change popular voter initiatives that ban animal traps and call for campaign finance reform have liberals and conservatives alike charging that Beacon Hill leaders have ignored the will of the people.

"They're sacred," said anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson, referring to laws passed directly by voters. "And the only proper way for the Legislature to change them is either by working with the people who put them on the ballot or by sending the issue back to the voters."

The flaps over the campaign finance reform law and ban on animal traps, both of which were amended by the Legislature Wednesday, reignited a fiery debate about state government: are citizen initiatives a sacred expression of the voters or an affront to our system of representative democracy?

For Anderson, who spearheaded the successful 1980 voter drive to cut property taxes, and many other activists, ballot initiatives are a pure expression of the voters that should never be substantially changed by elected officials.

But others see the citizen initiative as a dangerous tool that can tap into the emotion of the moment, resulting in ill-considered laws, and they say that contentious public policy questions are best resolved by an informed Legislature.

"I don't believe that what is popular is necessarily right," said George Bachrach, a former state senator and unsuccessful congressional candidate. "The danger you face with the initiative process is a question that sounds easy - let's end all taxes, or let's return all the tolls - but isn't really in the public interest."

In either case, those who see ballot questions as a legitimate way for voters to make or repeal laws say the Legislature's attack on the animal trap and campaign reform initiatives comes at a time when citizens trying to place questions on the ballot are facing ever-higher hurdles.

A July decision by the state's Supreme Judicial Court saying that stray pen marks could invalidate entire pages of voter signatures has activists scrambling to gather more than the 57,100 signatures required to get questions on the 2000 ballot.

"If the high court and leaders on Beacon Hill had conspired to eliminate the public's constitutional right to speak through the ballot they couldn't have done a more thorough job," said Jim Braude, a liberal Cambridge city councilor-elect.

Chip Ford, of the conservative Citizens for Limited Taxation, which is working with Governor Paul Cellucci to place an income-tax rollback on the 2000 ballot, also believes the confluence of the SJC decision and the recent actions of the state Legislature have imperiled the citizen initiative process.

"It's as if all these people got together and said there's just too much democracy around here," Ford said. "The entire initiative process is under threat from every direction."

Ford is no stranger to attempts by the Legislature to undermine or repeal laws created through the ballot.

In 1986, he ran the successful "Freedom First" campaign to overturn the state's first mandatory seat belt law. Eight years later, when the Legislature passed another law requiring the use of seat belts, Ford's troops fanned out across the state to gather signatures for another repeal, and lost when the issue was placed before the voters.

"If that's the will of the people, so be it," Ford said. "But I think the Legislature should have put the question on the ballot and not made us go out and collect all those signatures again."

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who has shown a willingness to take unpopular stands, said he is skeptical of the initiative process because ballot summaries presented to voters may not present a complete picture, and because voters are never asked to consider the total cost of the several questions that might be on the ballot.

For instance, he said the campaign finance law approved by voters last year could cost up to $100 million over four years, while questions on taxes and tolls proposed for the 2000 ballot could throw the state's budget out of balance.

"A voter might be intrigued by any one question but it takes a legislator who's cognizant of all the other factors in state government to evaluate it in context," Finneran said.

Not every advocate of the initiative process believes the Legislature should keep its hands off laws created through the ballot.

Joan Dempsey, the advocacy director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that after nearly three years on the books, the time has arrived for the Legislature to revise the animal trap law approved by voters in 1996.

But Dempsey also believes legislators have an obligation to work with proponents of the law and that the bill approved Wednesday by the House -- which allows the use of a "conibear" body trap for beaver and muskrat -- will come back to haunt the Legislature if it's ultimately approved by the Senate and the governor.

"As soon as somebody's dog gets caught in a conibear they're going to remember why people voted to ban trapping," Dempsey said.

And when it comes to the Legislature's effort to revamp the new campaign finance reform law, even those who are wary of the initiative process say the Legislature has an obligation to acknowledge the voters' growing distaste with the role of special interest money in political campaigns.

"In this case the ballot initiative was not a first resort, it was a last resort," said Bachrach.

Some proponents of the initiative process say the Legislature applies a double standard to laws approved by ballot -- treating those to their liking with reverence while labeling others the product of an emotional or uninformed electorate.

The Boston Herald
Friday, November 12, 1999

Pickpocketing pols shouldn't get funds
A Boston Herald editorial

First the voters of Massachusetts -- who must have been having a collective delusion back in 1998 -- thought they could buy the honesty of their politicians. The price wouldn't be cheap, of course. It was estimated at the time that the public financing of elections would cost anywhere from $20 million to $56 million for each election cycle.

The just-passed state budget includes a $10 million down payment on that public financing scheme. Ah, but this system isn't looking as attractive as it once did to members of the Massachusetts Legislature. While they would dearly like to get their greedy little hands on taxpayers' money to pay for their political campaigns, they don't want to give up those really useful slush funds of campaign cash that are so handy between elections.

Most House and Senate races don't cost a lot. Few legislators need to buy radio or TV time. Some hire consultants. But most make do with bumper stickers, buttons and ads in the local papers. Under the new public financing law, candidates who agree to limit their spending to $30,000 will get the taxpayers to pick up $24,000 of that.

Most incumbents, however, have grown accustomed to using their campaign accounts between elections for certain extras -- tickets to dinners and other events, flowers for constituents, meals and travel. Anything loosely connected to enhancing the pol's image would pass muster.

The public financing law doesn't require anyone to take public money. It just says, if you take public money, you must limit expenditures. It places additional restrictions on other money raised. But now legislators want it both ways. They want taxpayers dollars and no restrictions on raising or spending other campaign contributions until six months before an election.

This is quite possibly the most dishonest, disingenuous act ever perpetrated on Beacon Hill -- especially in the name of "Clean Elections."

A gubernatorial veto ought to be a no-brainer. But beyond that, it's time voters were given another opportunity to rethink public financing of elections. Taxpayers have better things to do with their money than finance this gang of pickpockets.

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