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Does Mass. make it too easy to put questions on the ballot?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  April 5, 2011 04:48 PM

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Putting a referendum question before voters is easier in Massachusetts than in almost any other state. And that, according to one state lawmaker, needs to change.

A proposal by state Representative Denise Provost of Somerville would more than double the number of signatures required, making it more difficult to get items on the ballot. Currently, it takes 3 percent of voters signing a petition to trigger a statewide referendum. Provost would raise that threshhold to 7 percent.

Provost has stated that making it tougher to put items on the ballot would keep special-interest groups from dictating the state's agenda — and raised the specter of a California-like paralysis without reforms.

"Everything that I have read recently about the budget crisis in California has suggested that one of the reasons for the dysfunctionality of the government is the referendum process there," she said last month.

But a broad swath of advocacy groups, including Common Cause, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, and the Massachusetts Family Institute have mobilized in defense of the state's ballot initiative system.

In Massachusetts, there were three questions on the ballot in 2010. Only one — a proposal to reinstate the sales tax exemption for alcohol — was approved by voters.

That vote overturned part a larger tax deal crafted by state legislators and Governor Deval Patrick in 2009. In an editorial, MetroWest Daily News surmises that proposals like Provost's stem from lawmakers who are tired of being second-guessed.

"Referendum questions... irritate the politically powerful, including those on Beacon Hill who prefer they make the policy decisions, not voters," they wrote.

Although, at least in Massachusetts, referendums aren't always the last word. A successful initative in 2000 to cut the income tax to 5 percent. But, as those scrambling to finish their taxes this month have probably noticed, state lawmakers refused to lower the rate, which is now 5.3 percent.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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