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No: State Amendment To Allow Referendums Would Risk Folly Of Mob Rule

LARRY WILLIAMS

October 19, 2008

On Nov. 4, Massachusetts residents can vote to repeal their state income tax. Just like that. No hassle with the legislature's medieval procedures for passing laws. No need for the governor's signature. All it will take is the will of the people.

In Connecticut, this can't happen. The only way a question gets on the state ballot here is if the legislature votes to place it there. And the only questions allowed are ones to amend the state constitution, not merely to pass or repeal a law.

The exception is the question on this year's ballot, asking whether there should be a convention to amend the state constitution. That's on the ballot because that very same constitution requires it every 20 years.

The question has sparked an aggressive campaign for a "yes" vote, the aim being to amend the constitution to allow what's known as initiative and referendum, which is how the income-tax question got on the Bay State ballot.

Advocates say it's a path to real democracy, lawmaking by The People. Let the majority rule. But what it actually would allow is mob rule lawmaking by the loudest, most passionate advocates of radical ideas that can't pass in the General Assembly, where the majority actually does rule.

Connecticut had its own repeal-the-income-tax movement in 1991, launched within hours of the income tax becoming law. Fortunately, it couldn't take its cause directly to the ballot. In that overheated atmosphere it might have passed, creating a fiscal nightmare we would still be experiencing today. Instead, they had to get the tax repealed the same way it was enacted by a vote of the legislature. And they failed.

If the state constitution is amended to allow initiatives, you can count on one of the first being to repeal the income tax. It's just the kind of drastic measure that's dead on arrival at the legislature, but could have a shot a long shot, after all these years in a referendum campaign, in which the standards of debate are lower than they are in the legislature.

Indeed, proposals with a superficial appeal are made to order for the demagogic campaigns, reeking of flag-pin populism, that typically are waged on their behalf.

You can see that happening in Massachusetts. The repeal would eliminate 40 percent of the state government's revenue.

Advocates say every taxpayer would save thousands of dollars annually, free and clear of negative consequences. The government would make do with less by cutting waste and improving efficiency.

On the other side are social-service providers, government employees, parents of school-age children and others with a stake in state spending. They predict a catastrophe. Vital services would be cut. Other, more onerous taxes would be increased to replace the lost revenue. No one would be unaffected.

The drive to repeal Connecticut's income tax was fueled by the same claims, as though the choice were between paying a tax and not paying a tax. In the legislature, they knew that was not true. They chose the income tax over an alternative tax package. If they repealed it, they would have to replace it.

Implicit in representative democracy is that voters delegate their lawmaking authority to the people they elect. We can't all become experts on every public policy issue, but we expect our representatives collectively to do that.

We hope that when they make a controversial decision, it's made wisely, and we generally give them the benefit of the doubt. In this process, radical proposals generally fail.

With an initiative, there's no need to run the legislative gantlet, subjecting an idea to close scrutiny, including consideration of consequences and alternatives.

"Let the people decide," is the slogan of one advocacy group, as if "the people" didn't elect the legislature.

And when they count votes on big issues at the Capitol, absentees are few and it takes a majority to win. In a referendum, a majority of the people voting can be a minority of the entire electorate.

This is especially true of referendums that don't coincide with general elections, because turnout is so poor. Look at the defeat of the West Hartford budget in an Oct. 6 referendum as a glaring example: 6,152 people voted no, 56 percent of the voters who showed up but only 16 percent of the electorate.

On Nov. 4, Massachusetts residents can vote to repeal their state income tax. Just like that. No hassle with the legislature's medieval procedures for passing laws. No need for the governor's signature. All it will take is the will of the people.

In Connecticut, this can't happen. The only way a question gets on the state ballot here is if the legislature votes to place it there. And the only questions allowed are ones to amend the state constitution, not merely to pass or repeal a law.

The exception is the question on this year's ballot, asking whether there should be a convention to amend the state constitution. That's on the ballot because that very same constitution requires it every 20 years.

The question has sparked an aggressive campaign for a "yes" vote, the aim being to amend the constitution to allow what's known as initiative and referendum, which is how the income-tax question got on the Bay State ballot.

Advocates say it's a path to real democracy, lawmaking by The People. Let the majority rule. But what it actually would allow is mob rule lawmaking by the loudest, most passionate advocates of radical ideas that can't pass in the General Assembly, where the majority actually does rule.

Connecticut had its own repeal-the-income-tax movement in 1991, launched within hours of the income tax becoming law. Fortunately, it couldn't take its cause directly to the ballot. In that overheated atmosphere it might have passed, creating a fiscal nightmare we would still be experiencing today. Instead, they had to get the tax repealed the same way it was enacted by a vote of the legislature. And they failed.

If the state constitution is amended to allow initiatives, you can count on one of the first being to repeal the income tax. It's just the kind of drastic measure that's dead on arrival at the legislature, but could have a shot a long shot, after all these years in a referendum campaign, in which the standards of debate are lower than they are in the legislature.

Indeed, proposals with a superficial appeal are made to order for the demagogic campaigns, reeking of flag-pin populism, that typically are waged on their behalf.

You can see that happening in Massachusetts. The repeal would eliminate 40 percent of the state government's revenue.

Advocates say every taxpayer would save thousands of dollars annually, free and clear of negative consequences. The government would make do with less by cutting waste and improving efficiency.

On the other side are social-service providers, government employees, parents of school-age children and others with a stake in state spending. They predict a catastrophe. Vital services would be cut. Other, more onerous taxes would be increased to replace the lost revenue. No one would be unaffected.

The drive to repeal Connecticut's income tax was fueled by the same claims, as though the choice were between paying a tax and not paying a tax. In the legislature, they knew that was not true. They chose the income tax over an alternative tax package. If they repealed it, they would have to replace it.

Implicit in representative democracy is that voters delegate their lawmaking authority to the people they elect. We can't all become experts on every public policy issue, but we expect our representatives collectively to do that.

We hope that when they make a controversial decision, it's made wisely, and we generally give them the benefit of the doubt. In this process, radical proposals generally fail.

With an initiative, there's no need to run the legislative gantlet, subjecting an idea to close scrutiny, including consideration of consequences and alternatives.

"Let the people decide," is the slogan of one advocacy group, as if "the people" didn't elect the legislature.

And when they count votes on big issues at the Capitol, absentees are few and it takes a majority to win. In a referendum, a majority of the people voting can be a minority of the entire electorate.

This is especially true of referendums that don't coincide with general elections, because turnout is so poor. Look at the defeat of the West Hartford budget in an Oct. 6 referendum as a glaring example: 6,152 people voted no, 56 percent of the voters who showed up but only 16 percent of the electorate.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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