Bay State citizens push tax cap, waste cleanup, mail-in registration

NOT all Massachusetts laws come from the legislature. Voters put some on the books, often with little support from elected senators and representatives. That's how Proposition 2 -- the local property-tax lid -- came into being in 1980. Now three more voter-initiated measures are moving in the same direction.

Disappointed by the legislature's failure to go along with their proposals, backers of a state tax cap, a mandatory cleanup of all hazardous waste sites in the commonwealth, and post-card voter registration have turned to the public for help.

To reach the November ballot, when voters would have the final say, the backers of each initiative petition must file not less than 10,252 new voter signatures. The deadline is June 18, except in Boston where an added five days is allowed.

Sponsors of all the initiatives will probably make it. But it's no easy task, since they cannot go back to any of the more than 61,508 voters who last fall signed the original petitions that placed their proposals before state lawmakers on a ``take it or leave it'' basis.

Cutting taxes, cleaning toxic-waste sites, and making it easier for people to become voters have considerable public appeal. But none of the proposals is opposition free. As organized as these groups may be, success in rallying enough voters to their cause is uncertain.

Citizens for Limited Taxation, for example, finds itself with a proposal, a part of which it no longer supports. The CLT tried but was unable to convince state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti that altering its provision for repealing the state's income-tax surcharge would be only a technical change and therefore permitted under the state constitution.

The tax-cut group's initiative, besides capping state revenue collections, calls for wiping out the surcharge over a two-year period. But last fall, after the CLT initiative was filed, state lawmakers approved a phase-out. And now with fiscal 1986 in its final days and with an expected $600 million-plus surplus, legislators are expected to follow the recommendation of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and eliminate the so-called ``tax on a tax'' retroactive to last January.

If nothing else, any conflict between the language of the ballot question and the law, as then in effect, will be bound to cause confusion and weaken prospects for approval of the tax-cap measure. Voters will hardly want to support something that might temporarily reinstate part of an unpopular levy that lawmakers had previously wiped out.

Further clouding the future of the CLT initiative is pending legislation aimed at putting a lid on state taxes, although one substantially less firm and more elastic than what the sponsors of Proposition 2 have in mind. A state Senate-approved bill would provide for returning to taxpayers any money collected that exceeds the cap, but only after a rainy-day reserve is fully funded.

The House version of the fiscal 1987 Massachusetts budget also includes a tax cap, but it would permit excess revenues to be used for meeting debt obligations or for special needs such as offsetting the effects of reduced federal funding.

It is questionable, however, whether either measure, if enacted, would provide much lasting tax relief.

Like the CLT initiative petition, the pending legislation would restrict state revenue growth to the annual average increase in personal income in the commonwealth.

The other two initiative petitions are less complicated.

While continuing to press their signature drive to reach the ballot, sponsors of the hazardous-waste cleanup proposal, including Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (Mass PIRG), are hoping that long before next fall it will already have become law. They are encouraged by a May 5 vote by which the House, on a 145-to-0 roll call, favored the measure. The Senate, however, took no action.

If either lawmakers or voters approve the proposal, the State Department of Environmental Quality Engineering would have two years to identify all toxic-waste sites in the state. Within six years, that agency would have to develop and implement a program for the permanent cleanup of the polluted areas.

Critics of the proposed statute are concerned about what it might cost to rid the state of the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 hazardous-waste dumps. They question whether there would be enough money to do the job and wonder what the impact of a strict cleanup program would be on the state's economy.

Of the three initiatives, the proposal for mail-in voter registration appears to have the broadest support. Its boosters include the League of Women Voters, Mass PIRG, and a variety of civic and activist groups bent on increasing citizen participation in the electoral process.

Its foes warn that the arrangement could lead to fraud, with artificially inflated voter rolls.

But supporters maintain that their proposal has ample safeguards. The system has worked well in several other states, and without a whiff of scandal.

Mail-in voter registration, eliminating all hazardous-waste sites in the commonwealth, and capping state revenues may all well be ideas whose time has come.

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