On November 4th, Massachusetts voters will be choosing more than just a President (and a Senator, and a slew of state and local officers). As one of 24 states with provisions for public initiatives, Massachusetts allows all of its citizens to act as lawmakers, and the AP reports (via Blue Mass. Group) that three separate questions appear to have qualified to go before the voters in 2008. To make the ballot, an initiative needs 11,099 signatures from registered Massachusetts voters; once it qualifies, it only requires a majority of votes cast to pass. The catch is that it does not pass as a new law but only as an official instruction to the legislature compelling them to vote in a certain way. I imagine that the legislature feels strong political pressure to follow the wishes of their constituents when expressed in such an official manner. However, I’m not sure what the actual record of successful initiatives being turned into law is, and regardless, it seems like an awfully shifty way to give citizens the guise of empowerment while withholding any actual authority from the public. (Edit — Upon further review of Massachusetts election law, this isn’t actually the case. If the measure gets the majority of the votes, it automatically becomes law, provided its supporters amount to more than 30% of the total number of voters.)

So what are these initiatives, and are any of them good ideas?

The first would end the Massachusetts income tax, and while the siren call of fewer taxes makes this one look tempting, I think it would be an unreservedly bad idea. The initiative would not lower taxes in any way, and lawmakers would assuredly just find a different source of income to replace it. One option would be to dramatically increase the property tax. BMG commenter MichaelBate outlines two reasons why this would be a bad idea:

1. Property taxes are highly regressive. The value of someone’s property is very poorly related to ability to pay, especially for retirees who may have a nice home but not much else, including no job and not much income.

2. Taxing property creates an incentive for overdevelopment… City and town officials are forever trying to increase the tax base, leading to more and more sprawl and ever higher density of buildings.

Making seniors homeless and promoting urban sprawl are not OK in my book. The other option would be to raise the sales tax, which would have even more regressive results. Cost of living expenses, already increasing with the slow economy, would become even more stifling for the poor, as necessities like food, clothing and gasoline become more expensive. If that’s not convincing enough, you just need to be a little more self-interested; a higher sales tax would impact college students. We’re a low-income group, and I know I don’t have the spare change to shoulder a tax burden that would be lifted mainly from the wealthy. Governor Deval Patrick publicly called out the elimination of the income tax as “a dumb idea”, and I have to agree with him. Income tax reform is always a good discussion to have, and I’m not saying Massachusetts’s current tax structure and rate are perfect (I honestly have no idea), but the income tax is the best vehicle for progressive taxation, and repealing it could be an economic disaster for the working class.

The second initiative would ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts. Animal cruelty is always inexcusable, and under the conditions that racing dogs currently suffer through, greyhound racing amounts to nothing more than legalized torture. The Committee to Protect Dogs, the group behind this initiative, has the facts:

  • The dogs are kept in cages barely large enough to allow movement for over twenty hours a day.
  • They face incredibly high rates of injury — over 800 over the past six years in just the two operating racetracks in Massachusetts.
  • The kennels are hotbeds of disease, and the dogs are fed raw meat deemed unfit for human consumption.
  • In one disturbing (and admittedly somewhat amusing) incident, several years ago a dog at Wonderland Greyhound Park twice tested positive for cocaine (why were they giving the dogs coke tests in the first place?!?!).

Eight years ago, a similar initiative was defeated by a narrow 47%-48% tally, and I strongly hope that this one gets the last few points necessary for passage.

The third initiative would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Jailing people for victimless crimes like smoking a joint wastes government money and ruins the lives of blameless individuals. Marijuana is not chemically addictive, has much milder long term effects than alcohol or tobacco, provides medically proven health benefits, and cannot lead to overdose. You don’t need to agree with marijuana use to see that the taxpayer expense for prosecuting these “crimes” is completely unnecessary.

In the United States, the ballot initiative has shown itself to be a powerful tool for political action both negative (numerous same-sex marriage bans) and positive (all six states proposing minimum wage increases passed them in 2006). However, empowering the citizen is always a good thing, and I hope Massachusetts’s initiative laws are strengthened in the coming years. In the short term, all Massachusetts voters have a chance to make their voices heard on three key ideas (two good, one bad IMHO), and I encourage everyone to educate themselves and make informed choices on these issues as well as on the candidates on Election Day.

11 comments on “Three Initiatives on Mass. Ballot in 2008”

  1. Christine Dorchak, Esq. Says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your interest and support of our efforts to phase out greyhound racing. I am happy to say the our citizens initiative is an “initiative petition for a law” and will be binding.

    As long as dog racing continues, greyhounds will suffer injuries and live confined in tiny cages at warehouse-style kennels. To see a slideshow of conditions at Wonderland’s Lynn Kennel Compound and to view track injury records, please go to http://www.protectdogs.org

    Christine Dorchak, Esq.
    Co-Chairperson, Committee to Protect Dogs

  2. Daiseymae Says:

    Nice piece! Your comments about greyhounds are very informative. Especially like your questioning why they are testing greyhounds for cocaine.

    I myself don’t know, except I did read that three greyhounds tested positive for cocaine at the Daytona Track, and according to media reports other illegal substances seem to turn up in greyhounds at other tracks.

    Then I also read that one track had to suspend some trainers and dog handlers who apparently were taking drugs. In fact they closed the track for a few days there were so many suspensions. Not enough people left to care for the greyhounds!

    Not that any of this happens in Massachusetts of course. Only at those OTHER tracks! Greyhound racing is a wonderful business. You think?

  3. Gideon Says:

    Maybe there will be an initiative to get Democrat State Rep. James Fagan out of office. See his comments on 6-year-old rape victims at http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/politics/view.bg?articleid=1102761.

  4. Lev Says:

    Damn! That is messed up.

  5. Adam Hughes Says:

    Christine — Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comments. I reviewed the Massachusetts election rules, and indeed you’re correct that upon passage, the initiative will become law. The only potential red flag is that the law would could still be amended or repealed by the General Court; however, I doubt many representatives would get behind an effort to completely contradict the expressed will of the voters. (Anyone interested in the initiative process in Massachusetts can check the Secretary of State’s website here: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/eleguide/guidelaw.htm).

    I’m sure many of us at Innermost Parts (myself included) might be interested in what campaign activities the Committee to Protect Dogs is going to be involved with before the election and how we can get involved. Please, let us know what we can do to help as a campus community and pass this much-needed reform.

  6. Adam Hughes Says:

    Gideon — Removing a state official from office requires a recall election, not an initiative, and Massachusetts does not have a recall provision. It doesn’t matter though; representatives are up for election every two years anyway, so the voters will have a chance to remove Rep. Fagan from office in November anyway.

    But should they? The comments in the article you linked to sound so horrible that I felt they must have been taken out of context. I looked into the case a little deeper, and as I expected, the Herald isn’t telling anything close to the full story (indeed, its framing is laughably one-sided). In context, it’s obvious that Rep. Fagan was only speaking in the first person to represent a third person perspective, namely that of a trial lawyer. As a former trial lawyer himself, Fagan certainly has good insight into the mindset of his colleagues, and if Fagan is correct, it is that mindset and those who hold it to which we should direct our criticism.

    Do Fagan’s comments prove he shares that mindset? To believe that, we would have to accept the following things as true:
    1. Despite being a little league umpire, a youth basketball coach and a member of the board of directors of his local Boys and Girls Club, Rep. Fagan dislikes children enough that he is prepared to mentally destroy a six year old rape victim.
    2. Despite have served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for 15 years, Rep. Fagan is so utterly stupid and lacking in political sense that he will admit this in what he knows to be an open, televised session of the General Court.

    Be honest. Is this incredibly unlikely scenario really more probable than just assuming he was using a rhetorical technique to demonstrate what he perceived as a very real threat to young children? Should we really be so quick to assume such wanton malice without any corroborating evidence at all? I admit that it’s a very weak argument against passing Jessica’s Law (I can think of several much better reasons). However, those who are calling for his head just aren’t looking at this situation rationally.

  7. Christine Dorchak, Esq. Says:

    Hi Again Adam,

    Thanks for your offer to help educate others about the cruelty of dog racing, and to assist our campaign efforts. We are preparing to launch a robust public education campaign and would welcome new volunteers. Anyone who would like to join the team may e-mail me privately or through this forum.

    On the legal point, the Massachusetts General Court may in fact pass a citizens initiative. Under Article XLVII of the Massachusetts State Constitution, the legislature has a period of weeks between January, following the initial required signature drive, and May (before the second and final petitioning effort), to vote up or down any ballot question.

    Legislators may create an alternative legislative bill that passes through the State House for a vote (think of the health care initiative of 2006) but it can not amend a citizens bill itself, or impede its progress. In other words, the citizens bill remains a citizens bill and proceeds accordingly. That is the process that the campaign to pass the Greyhound Protection Act is following, and our second signature gathering period has just concluded with four times as many signatures collected as required by law. We are confident that Massachusetts voters will support the Greyhound Protection Act on election day.

    Like any other bill, ours will be subject to repeal after passage. However, we are optimistic that Massachusetts lawmakers will abide by the will of the people to end an anachronistic pastime that continues to hurt greyhounds in the state. Just last month, nine more dogs broke their legs while racing. This is suffering the Greyhound Protection Act will stop.

    Please Vote for the Dogs on November 4!

    Christine

  8. Alex N Says:

    It’s funny. I looked at the Fagan article without noticing what publication it was and as I was reading it I suddenly stopped and thought, “this is a Herald article isn’t it?”

    In any event, I actually just wrote something on the Supreme Court decision on the death penalty for child rape, if you feel like checking it out over at uponthegears.com

  9. Michelle Young Cuenant Says:

    Christine…I have been trying to reach you..please contact Judy Paulsen…and me!
    The time is ripe to end Greyhound Racing, everywhere…there is NEVER any “value” in cruelty to animals and there is NEVER any good civilization that accepts it.
    Let’s go! I want to do a documentary…and I want it done NOW! 🙂

    Michelle Young Cuenant

  10. Kemydinibend Says:

    Thank you

  11. Jean Says:

    I heard that Mass voters approved initiative #2 banning greyhound tracks. Can you confirm?