NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 9, 2012

Non-binding questions win voter support, but little else

Questions tackle Citizens United, legalizing marijuana, federal spending

By Mac Cerullo Staff Writer
Newburyport Daily News

---- — As America took to the polls on Tuesday, local voters overwhelmingly supported a number of nonbinding ballot initiatives dealing with some of the country’s most hotly debated issues.

The nonbinding questions, which varied by state legislative district and were contested in different pockets of the state, gave voters a chance to weigh in on matters like tax reform and marijuana regulation while allowing officials a glimpse into the will of the public.

“Essentially, they’re a way for voters to express their interest in an issue to elected officials,” said Bruce Tarr, the state Senate minority leader whose district includes several local towns. “They don’t compel any necessary action … but if a bill is filed in the future, we would take the referendum into account.”

In the Newburyport area, three questions appeared on the ballots of most communities, including the wide-ranging “Budget for All” tax reform question, a measure supporting the repeal of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a referendum on the full legalization of marijuana.

The “Budget for All” question instructs the local legislator to call upon Congress and the president to “prevent cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other assistance programs, invest in creating jobs, close corporate tax loopholes, raise taxes on incomes over $250,000, and reduce military spending by bringing U.S. troops home now.”

Similarly, the Citizens United question asks the legislator to ask Congress to “propose a constitutional amendment specifying that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of humans, and that both Congress and the states may limit political contributions and spending.”

These two questions were on the ballot in the 1st and 2nd Essex House Districts, which include Salisbury, Amesbury, Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury, Merrimac, Groveland, Georgetown and parts of Haverhill and Boxford.

The third question, which takes the provisions of Question 3 even further by fully legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, was on the ballot in Tarr’s 1st Essex and Middlesex Senate District, which includes Georgetown, Groveland, Newbury, Rowley and West Newbury, among other communities farther away.

The reason why the questions were nonbinding is because only certain districts in the state voted on them. Tarr explained that any change in the law would need to be put to a statewide vote, because allowing one district composed of a handful of communities to dictate the law of the entire state wouldn’t be fair.

“In order to make a law, you can’t rely on just those communities,” Tarr said. “The impact of these questions is more limited because the voting is constrained to a few districts rather than the whole state.”

Each of these three questions, along with other questions posed elsewhere, won approval in every district where they appeared on the ballot across the state. In the greater Newburyport area, each measure won by nearly 10,000 votes.

While the results do not guarantee any action, proponents of the causes addressed in the questions said the results serve as a local litmus test that could potentially spur Washington into action if a particular cause has enough support.

The vote favoring full legalization of marijuana in particular was seen as a major victory by supporters of marijuana reform, who were further buoyed by the approval of Question 3 legalizing medical marijuana in the state, along with similar legalization votes taken in Colorado and Washington.

Even though the votes’ results were clear, the next step is not. State legislators said that while they pay attention to the results of ballot questions, there’s no guarantee that any action will be taken.

“Since they’re nonbinding, I don’t think there’s any obligation on the elected official to act,” said Adam Martignetti, chief of staff for Rep. Mike Costello, who represents the 1st Essex District.

Martignetti said Costello favors both the “Budget for All” and Citizens United questions, and even voted for them himself, but said the people who put the questions on the ballot would likely need to work with him and the other legislators before anything could be done.

“The language is really broad, so we need to look at the specifics before we sign anything,” Martignetti said. “In spirit, we’re supportive of both.”

But even with the involvement of state legislators, there’s still the reality that each of the issues addressed were federal issues that state lawmakers don’t have the power to address directly.

Lenny Mirra, who just won election to the 2nd Essex District state representative seat, said he will always support the will of the people and will never ignore ballot questions, but conceded that ending the war in Afghanistan and pushing for a constitutional amendment was something he wouldn’t be able to do.

“If I could, I’d absolutely vote on those things, but I’m a state rep, I have no say on those federal issues,” Mirra said.

Despite that, he said he would work to implement the questions’ provisions at the state level, where he would be able to make a difference.

“The Citizens United one we definitely shouldn’t have to avoid; even though we can’t do much about it federally, we should definitely work to get money out of state politics,” Mirra said.