Massachusetts voters send ballot message to their legislators

BAY State lawmakers, especially the Democratic majority, seem to be out of step with their constituents. That message was written between the lines on ballot after ballot cast in the commonwealth Nov. 4. Although the level of disagreement varied from issue to issue, voters failed to support the legislature's position on four key referendum questions.

Particularly telling were the ballot rejections of proposals seeking to end public funding of abortions and provide tax dollars to aid private elementary and secondary schools.

Voters also spurned - and wiped off the books - the state's mandatory seat-belt law, enacted last year. And, in effect, they repealed the legislature's hardly two-week-old tax cap, in favor of a stricter measure, initiated last year by Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT). Passage of the latter must be particularly disquieting to senators and representatives, although it passed by a thinner margin than did Proposition 2, the local property tax restriction, in 1980.

It was a less than subtle notice to Beacon Hill that voters expect the legislature to run a much tighter state fiscal ship than it has been willing to. Any attempt to weaken, stretch, or remove the voter-imposed tax cap would almost certainly face stiff opposition, not only from the CLT but from other fiscally conservative forces. It would fly in the face of a small army of voters.

Those who would suggest that people supporting Question 3 did not know what it was all about are at best naive. Clearly it was what a majority of Bay Staters - Democrats, Republicans, and independents - want.

Legislators who are unwilling to accept that might be advised to listen to the people they represent.

Had state lawmakers, especially their leaders, been genuinely interested in a tax cap, even one of lesser proportions, they almost surely would have seen to its passage months ago rather than waiting until just before the election and the vote on the CLT-initiated and Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation-supported proposal.

While it may be unrealistic to expect lawmakers at all times to vote according to the sentiments of their constituents, certainly their votes should reflect a sensitivity to the will of the people back home, especially when critical issues are involved.

All too often, however, special interests or loyalties to legislative leaders may influence lawmaker votes more than the wishes of the folks in their district.

If senators and representatives had done more sounding out of their constituents earlier, or heeded the results of an almost identical ballot proposal in 1982, it is questionable that they would have sent the nonpublic school-aid measure back to the voters.

But they yielded to the persuasive oratory of Senate president William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, who was determined that the state's century-old constitutional ban on public funding of parochial and other private schools be ended.

The controversial proposal that would place nonpublic schools in competition with public schools for limited tax dollars, cleared the legislature last spring 107 to 87.

But it was clobbered at the polls Nov. 4 by nearly 2 to 1. That was a wider margin than four years ago.

This latest rejection came despite strong support from the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts.

The church's efforts in behalf of the anti-abortion question also failed, but by a slightly thinner 2-to-1 tally. This measure had reached the ballot after 120-to-67 state lawmaker approval. It sought to change the Massachusetts constitution to allow the legislature not only to deny public funding of abortions, except when the life of the pregnant woman was threatened, but to otherwise regulate abortions insofar as permitted by the US Constitution.

Despite the dimensions of negative voter response to the private-school aid and antiabortion proposals, it seems certain that Senator Bulger and others will continue to push them.

Neither can return to the Massachusetts ballot until 1990, since constitutional changes require majority approval of two separately elected legislatures before they can go to the voters.

But regardless of how soon the revival move begins and how tenacious the lobbying by proponents becomes, Massachusetts lawmakers may think twice before going the same route again, unless there is a substantial change in voter sentiment. And that hardly seems likely in the near future.

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