Will they gut Question 2?
by Jeff Jacoby
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QUESTION 2 -- the ballot initiative to scrap transitional bilingual education -- passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday, and the immediate response from Beacon Hill was a vow to gut it. Robert Antonioni, the Senate chairman of the Education Committee, told reporters to expect "potentially significant change" in the new law. "I think people just saw this as a quick fix," he said, "and I don't think they ever got into the details of this plan."
In other words, the voters were too dumb to know what they were doing when they approved Question 2, so lawmakers needn't show deference to their decision. That condescending attitude now pervades the Massachusetts State House, and if it isn't vigorously challenged, it is going to doom the initiative and referendum process in this state to extinction.
Think back to the most disgraceful episode of the political season that just ended. Remember? It wasn't the Democrats' effort to knock Mitt Romney off the ballot on bogus residency grounds, or Romney's implication that Shannon O'Brien was tainted by her marriage to a lobbyist, or the anti-Question 2 rally at which Ron Unz was likened to a Nazi by the head of a Hispanic lobby.
All of those were bad, but this was worse: The lynching of a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman.
Under Massachusetts law, before a proposed amendment can be put before the voters it must go to a joint session of the Legislature; if it is approved by 25 percent of the lawmakers in two separate votes, it moves to the state ballot. The sponsors of the marriage amendment had amassed more than 130,000 signatures in support of their proposal and were entitled to a roll call in the Legislature. But the Legislature ignored the law and adjourned without a vote. That was worse than dishonest or shabby. It was a blatant show of contempt for the electorate.
And it wasn't the only one. In the past year, the Legislature also:
Moreover, without ever saying so explicitly, legislators made it pretty clear that they would repeal Question 1 -- the proposed repeal of the state income tax -- if the voters had the audacity to pass it. In the event, the voters came close: Question 1 drew a far-higher-than-predicted 45 percent of the vote.
Massachusetts is one of only 24 states in which citizens can adopt or repeal laws by ballot. Direct democracy, as initiative and referendum are also called, was the fairest flower of the Progressive Era; among its champions were Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. "For 20 years I preached to the students of Princeton that the referendum . . . was bosh," Wilson said. "I have since investigated, and I want to apologize to those students. It is the safeguard of politics. It takes power from the boss and places it in the hands of the people."
Lawmakers tend to resent ballot initiatives, which infringe on their legislative monopoly, and have used their regulatory power to make it difficult for proposed laws to qualify for the ballot. Those handicaps -- everything from requiring a very high number of signatures to allowing only a few weeks for them to be gathered -- have taken their toll. This year, only 53 voter-initiated questions appeared on ballots around the country, the fewest since 1986.
In recent years lawmakers have gone beyond merely obstructing direct democracy; in some states they seem bent on crippling it altogether. In Oklahoma, for example, they tried to raise the signature requirement for amendments dealing with hunting and fishing to an all-but-insurmountable 15 percent. The measure failed, but lawmakers in other states will doubtless be encouraged to try the same thing. Or maybe they will take their cue from the Massachusetts Legislature and simply begin killing proposed initiatives and even voter-approved laws they don't like.
Ballot measures are an admirable expression of self-government; laws passed by voters are almost always more carefully drafted and vigorously debated than those passed in the state house. They are an important check and balance on political arrogance and an indispensable vehicle for redressing citizens' grievances. But they cannot be any of those things if legislators can trash them at will -- and get away with it.
If voters don't want to lose their right to adopt or repeal laws through the ballot box, they had better start insisting on some respect. A loud, clear, vigorous demand that Question 2 be implemented as written would make a good start.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)