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. “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.