NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 14, 2013

Taking the initiative no easy task

Barbara Anderson
Newburyport Daily News

---- — For those of us who like direct democracy, there will be opportunities for participation this fall when several initiative petitions go to the streets looking for your signatures.

As I wrote in mid-August, 33 petitions were filed with the attorney general’s office by various groups and individuals: Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution sets the rules for petitions and the attorney general must certify that those rules have been followed when drafting the proposed new law or constitutional amendment.

To make sure they get certified, the activists sometimes file more than one version of their proposal: so of the 33 petitions, only 20 different issues were covered. One constitutional amendment, to declare that “corporations are not people, money is not speech” was refused as “inconsistent with certain constitutional rights” that aren’t subject to initiative petitions. That leaves three proposed amendments for signature collection: one to create a single-payer system for health insurance, one to have Massachusetts join a Commonwealth of Democratic nations (a global federation union); and one to order that our National Guard not be sent beyond the borders of Massachusetts except to help with natural disasters in other states, not wars in other countries.

The first was the threat that inspired RomneyCare as an alternative to government-run healthcare. The second is too ridiculous to sign. The third is interesting: I remember being surprised when I learned that the National Guard was fighting overseas, as I’d always thought its mission was internal to the country. I’d have to know how the guardsmen themselves feel about this petition before I signed it.

Filing a petition is easy: collecting thousands of signatures, then running a ballot campaign, incredibly hard. Constitutional amendments have a more difficult path: they must get the signatures, then a vote of 25 percent of the General Court in two consecutive legislative sessions, then be supported by voters in November 2016.

Petitioners for a statute need “only” collect 80,000 signatures (100,000 if proponents expect a challenge of their signatures by opponents) this fall, then, if the Legislature doesn’t enact their petition next May, they must collect roughly another 20,000 signatures to take them to the November 2014 ballot. Because of the difficulty of all this, don’t expect to see all 12 proposed new laws when you go to vote.

There are petitions relative to earned sick time, to keep daylight savings time year-round, and a “new hire incentive” that I don’t understand; the latter is filed by the same person who filed a reduction in the sales tax to 5 percent, so I hope he chooses to do only that one. Getting signatures on two petitions in the same drive is much harder than you’d think. The Nurses’ Association also has two: one on “excessive hospital operating margins” and another on “patient safety” (setting by law the nursing staffing numbers).

Other unions are getting behind the increase in the state minimum wage; they can usually field petitioners. MassPIRG has experience petitioning, so might get its update of the bottle bill to the ballot.

The two petitions I’m planning to sign would repeal two sections of Gov. Deval Patrick’s new tax increase for “transportation funding.” The first doesn’t address this year’s hike in the gas tax, but repeals the section that says the gas tax can increase every year after 2014 by the consumer price index, without a further vote of our legislators. This campaign is called “Tank the Gas Tax.”

The second petition is called the “Act to repeal the 2013 sales tax on computer and software technology services,” and is filed by those businesses that were told they had one week after Gov. Patrick’s tax hike package passed to start collecting this tax, even though no one in government knows exactly which services are taxed and which companies the law applies to, but whoever they are they must collect it before they even get a chance to bill the customer, and there’s a penalty if they don’t do it whoever they are and whatever it does. The Department of Revenue has been trying to write regulations to clarify all this.

Since legislators had no idea what they were voting on, or that it will harm one of the most vital sectors of our economy with its ability to create jobs, this new sales tax should be repealed immediately; legislative Republicans filed a bill on Monday to accomplish this before more businesses consider moving their jobs elsewhere.

However, I must admit that having the repeal petition on the 2014 ballot with the legislative doofuses (doofi?) who passed it would be great fun, giving their opponents the opportunity to tell voters about the legislators’ ignorance of the bills they pass and of how the economy works. Maybe by next November voters will be looking for management ability in a Governor Baker, and legislators who think about consequences before they overtax job creators.

By the way: Repealing the new tech tax only to replace it with another increase in the state income tax rate would be another bad idea. Taxpayers’ slogan should be “Repeal, Resist, Reform” as they seek out this initiative petition to sign.

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Marblehead resident Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.