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Perspective | Jim Braude

Should we bother with ballot questions?

Voters have some important decisions to make this fall. Now let’s hope our elected representatives actually listen to us.

Globe staff photo-illustration

The Senate president spoke: “So, what you want me to do, James, is manipulate procedures to ensure that there is no vote to repeal your law for one full year. Is that correct?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way, but yes,” I said.

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“Done!” Bill Bulger declared.

And with that, Massachusetts became the first state to require certain banks, insurance companies, and publicly traded corporations to disclose what they paid in state taxes. All because tens of thousands of signatures demanding a ballot question convinced business leaders and politicians like Governor Bill Weld that a compromise was better than what might be handed to them in the election six weeks later, when voters weighed in on the measure.

Bulger agreed to back the narrower version of the proposal which still required the disclosure of corporate tax payments. But could a law that horrified corporate leaders — whose money moved Beacon Hill — really survive?

That was 1992, when I lobbied on Beacon Hill as director of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts. Legislating by ballot had been made possible three-quarters of a century earlier, when the state constitution was amended to allow voters to make or repeal laws.

Now, more than 170 ballot efforts later, we are among two dozen states that let voters take matters into their own hands on issues like allowing women to hold office (we did), banning handguns (we didn’t), or graduating the income tax (we didn’t — five times, once with me leading the losing side).

The deadline to get questions on the ballot passed earlier this month. So this November, we’ll decide whether to eliminate gas-tax indexing, require paid sick leave, expand the bottle bill, and — most controversial — repeal the casino deal.

The Massachusetts public has embraced its lawmaking powers with a passion. But state legislators have surely not. Many have told me they see voters’ resorting to direct democracy as a statement that representative democracy has failed them. They’re right. So it’s no surprise when, on high-stakes matters, legislators occasionally undo what the voters have done.

Legally, they’re within their rights: Laws passed on the ballot can be changed, just like those enacted by traditional means. But that’s sending voters an enraging message — we don’t care what you want!

Just before the Supreme Judicial Court allowed casino repeal on the ballot this June, Governor Deval Patrick showed that he felt some of the legislators’ pain, declaring himself “a little wary of government by referendum.” He then suggested to me that the casino question had been the product of “robust debate over the course of several years and deep engagement by elected representatives of the people.”

Robust is in the eye of the beholder. In 2008, under anti-gambling speaker Sal DiMasi, the casino measure was crushed. Three years later, with pro-gaming Bob DeLeo at the helm, the opposition was crushed. It seems that some 60 “no” legislators had an epiphany and switched to “yes.” Would that make solons less likely to honor a casino repeal, should voters demand it this fall?

Maybe they should ask the state’s highest-profile practitioner of direct democracy what she thinks. It’s been more than a dozen years since Barbara Anderson has gone to the ballot. The head of Citizens for Limited Taxation, whom I opposed in 1990 when she asked voters to endorse a deep cut in the state’s budget, explains why she has abandoned the tool that once made her so feared: “It’s too difficult.” She notes that “the world has changed, as you may have noticed — virtually no talk radio, people are busy, scattered, so you can’t get public attention, and then you have the Legislature kick you in the teeth.”

That teeth-kicking followed passage of a 2000 question rolling the state’s income tax back to 5 percent. Fourteen years later, the Legislature continues to ignore the voters’ mandate, with the rate reduced but still not where the people wanted it. (And speaking of revenue, those casino dollars could be very seductive to tax-phobic lawmakers.)

Which gets us back to that corporate tax reporting deal with the Senate president. The law went into effect on December 31, 1993. The next day, a Globe headline read “75% of firms in state paid minimum tax,” one-third of an average individual’s tax bill. Were they the big firms or just mom-and-pops? The answer came the following morning, when the Globe story about the new law read: “Some Mass. firms took big tax credits, cut jobs.” That’s right. Corporations took hundreds of thousands of dollars in “job-creating” tax breaks while exporting jobs to other states.

Rather than act to fix the inequity, the House opted for another approach days later — make the information disappear. After that chamber voted for repeal, I approached Bulger (who didn’t respond to my request to reminisce for this essay), reminding him of his promise not to touch the law for a year. He said I should come to his office. I did, then waited . . . and waited. His staffer said he’d be there any minute. A hundred or so minutes later, I left, bumping into a colleague outside the Senate chamber. “Where have you been?” she barked. I told her. She then said that the Senate had just repealed the law, with the Senate president gaveling it through.

I have always believed in the power of ballot campaigns. But Barbara Anderson may be onto something. So, the first hurdle for citizen activists this fall is winning in the voting booth. The second is ensuring Beacon Hill doesn’t turn around and nullify all of their work.

2014’s Ballot

Questions 1. Repeal gas-tax indexing?

2. Expand the bottle bill?

3. Stick with casinos?

4. Mandate paid sick ti me?

More coverage:

- Gambling: an American love/hate story

- Winners and losers in decision on casino repeal vote

- Proposed casino locations in Massachusetts

- More casno coverage

Jim Braude is host ofBroadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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