SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 11, 2013

Anderson: Citizen initiatives stir hope

Barbara Anderson
The Salem News

---- — Oh tidings of great citizen joy. Last week several groups of activists from across the political spectrum managed to collect enough signatures to get their initiative petitions heading for the 2014 ballot.

Each petition needed 68,911 certified signatures, which means the signatures collected through the fall had to be validated by city and town clerks as belonging to registered voters before being turned in to the secretary of state on Dec. 4. This means that petition groups aim to collect 100,000 signatures, since many would be either invalid, duplicates, or in violation of some regulation; if you’ve never run one of these drives, you can’t imagine how time- and energy-consuming they are.

Because I’ve been involved in several, I am amazed that one campaign, named “Tank the Automatic Gas Tax,” filed 87,620 signatures; since it was responding to a tax increase package that passed in mid-summer, its amateur supporters had a very short time to put together a viable statewide effort. Another group, formed to prohibit casino gambling, had an even tougher row to hoe, as their petition was ruled improper by Attorney General Martha Coakley; they had to proceed in the hope of getting her decision overruled by the state Supreme Judicial Court sometime after the drive.

Unions usually have an easier time organizing anything so they collected plenty of signatures for a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, nurse staffing and hospital administration petitions.

MassPIRG, an old hand at initiative petitions, filed 105,000 signatures for its expanded bottle bill. I could support this if I didn’t think it unfair to expand grocery stores’ responsibility for accepting and storing even more items, of many different sizes.

I do really like what MassPIRG’s Janet Domenitz told the State House News Service after the announcements of the victorious drives:

“This is a sacred process,” Domenitz said. “We’re all honored to be a part of it.”

Yes, these are the tidings of citizen joy: that citizens, distracted by so much going on in their lives, still took time to stop and sign initiative petitions. Whether we agree with the subject of the petitions or not, we can celebrate participation in democracy.

Next steps: the state Constitution requires that all the petitions have a public hearing and a required up or down vote, no changes, by the first Wednesday in May. If the Legislature enacts it, the petition becomes law. If the Legislature votes No, or doesn’t vote, petitioners must get another 11,485 certified signatures, from different voters, before their issue can be placed on the November 2014 statewide ballot with the legislators who didn’t like it.

This will be especially interesting with the gas tax issue, since those legislators will have to explain their position that future gas tax increases should be automatic, relative to inflation, never again requiring a roll call vote. I am hoping that they all have opponents who will disagree with this theory and argue that all taxation should have representation with a visible roll call vote.

My personal concern is that the concept might catch on, and future legislatures will make income, sales and property taxes automatically increase with inflation, without any politician voting for any tax hike ever again. Special kudos to those Republican legislators who voted No on the original tax package, then helped lead the petition drive to repeal this outrageous automatic section themselves.

To add drama to the 2014 election, the petitions will be on the ballot with governor candidates. It’s safe to say that Charlie Baker and his lieutenant governor candidate, Karyn Polito, will be opposed to automatic tax increases; I’m eager to hear how the Democrats feel about this.

If she wins the nomination, Martha Coakley will also have to defend her opposition to letting voters decide the casino issue. As nearly as I can understand her argument, she thinks there’s some kind of contract with potential casino operators that since they got started with the process of approval, perhaps buying some land, they are entitled to actually build the casinos.

And yet, the attorney general had no problem allowing the recent initiative petition that shut down the dog tracks that were already existing businesses that had long ago contracted with some local communities to operate there, creating jobs.

In a perfect libertarian world, anyone could operate a legal business anywhere on their own land, and gamblers could put their money down and take their chances. In our real Massachusetts world, “legal” will quickly add aspects of illegality, taxpayers will be picking up the extra public safety costs, and then we’ll be forced to cover the social costs of gambling as well. This is why, at the very least, the commonwealth’s voters should make the decision. I hope the SJC agrees.

The last petition drive I was involved with was the state income tax rate cut in 1999-2000. When the three-year rollback was frozen by a disrespectful Legislature in 2002, I kind of lost faith in initiative democracy. However, that tax rate has been slowly defrosting toward 5 percent, and the success of the TankTax drive was inspiring; I’m feeling the faith again.

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Marblehead resident Barbara Anderson is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.