Bulger & Co. try again to amend the Bay State constitution

SOME special interests just won't take ``no'' for an answer - no matter how resounding and how often repeated. Twice in the past five years, Bay State voters have overwhelmingly rejected the concept of public funding for nonpublic schools. Yet backers of such proposals refuse to be deterred.

They are once again asking Massachusetts lawmakers to approve a change in the state constitution to permit use of taxpayer dollars to provide tuition, textbooks, and services for pupils attending parochial and other private elementary and secondary schools.

The controversial measure, if supported by a majority of legislators meeting in joint session later this year, would fly in the face of 70 percent of the state's voters who only last November thwarted a similar proposal. While nothing suggests that a new amendment would fare any better on the 1990 ballot, its boosters seem as determined as they were 1982 and '86.

To be placed before the voters, the measure must clear two successive, but separately elected legislatures. That is required for any constitutional change, no matter how minor.

If approved by lawmakers and ratified by voters, the current amendment would not only end the longstanding restriction on financial aid to nonpublic schools in Massachusetts, but it would leave it to the legislature to decide the type and extent of such assistance. The direction of public funding would be confined to whatever might be allowed by the United States Constitution, under which direct public aid to private elementary and secondary schools is forbidden.

The pending proposal, filed by state Senate president William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, has, as in the past, had the strong support of Bernard Cardinal Law, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston. Opponents include the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, whose president on June 8 sent a letter to all senators and representatives urging rejection of the proposal. Last year, only in one of the commonwealth's 351 cities and towns did the majority of those voting favor a nonpublic-school aid proposal.

That fact, coupled with the 7-to-3 margin by which the ballot question was turned down statewide, should make lawmakers think twice before putting what amounts to the same thing back to the ballot.

The school aid measure is among 19 proposed constitutional amendments placed on the 1987 docket for consideration at a joint sitting of the legislature. It is questionable, however, how many will be taken up, since legislative leaders pretty much control such things, and there is no requirement that anything on the so-called ``con-con'' calendar be acted on.

The Senate and House have met in joint session twice this year - on May 13 and June 10. Both sessions lasted less than a minute, with nothing taken up beyond moves to adjourn to a later date. The lawmakers are to meet again July 8, but there is no hint what, if anything, might be dealt with.

Besides the nonpublic-school aid, the docket includes a proposed constitutional change to allow public grants for private nonprofit cultural institutions. This might include museums as well as performing arts groups.

Also pending are: two measures to restrict the length of annual legislative sessions to six or seven months; two proposals to give voters the means to recall elected public officials in whom they lack confidence; and five measures to abolish the state's decennial census and base future legislative redistricting on the federal census.

The last change has the enthusiastic backing of civic groups, lawmakers from both parties, and Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, whose office oversees the mid-decade Massachusetts census every 10 years. Despite little outward opposition, similar proposals to drop the state census were not taken up by lawmakers last year.

Substantially more controversial is a proposal aimed at constitutionally barring the state or any of its political subdivisions from enacting laws or regulations that would ``deny, abridge, or infringe the inalienable, unalterable, and incontestable right of individual citizens to keep, bear, and use their private firearms, ammunition, and their components....''

Other pending proposals would end the requirement that a person registering to vote be able to read English and sign his or her name; make it easier for those pushing voter referendums to collect the needed voter signatures; and provide for carrying over legislation from one lawmaking year to the next.

For the first time in more than a decade none of the items on the legislative ``con-con'' agenda calls for abolition of the eight-member, low-visibility state Executive Council.

And under the constitution, no items can be added after the second Wednesday in May.

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