Democracy in America

Some Pressing Issues

IN ADDITION to selecting their policymakers, Massachusetts voters tomorrow can directly affect Commonwealth policy. Four binding referenda on key state issues are on the ballot, as well as one making a recommendation on a pressing national issue, the nuclear freeze. All have significant implications and should be weighed carefully.

Question 1: Private School Funding

Question 1 on the ballot would remove present constitutional provisions preventing the use of state government revenue for private schools. Massachusetts laws are currently much stricter than federal constitutional codes, and this referendum would merely make state rules consistent with national policy. In a vacuum, the proposal would seem rational, since private schools in the Commonwealth often provide a better education, and since carefully constructed tax breaks could help poorer families give this opportunity to their children.

This is, however, no time to spread education revenues thin. The public schools in the state are currently weathering a severe fiscal crisis which this referendum, if passed, would exacerbate. The government's primary concern should be with providing decent public education, and voters should uphold this principle by opposing Question 1.

Question 2: The Death Penalty

Question 2, as the ads say, is a killer. It would remove constitutional restrictions on the death penalty. If it is approved, the legislature will most likely create a Bay State death row as soon as it re-convenes.

The campaign in favor of this ballot questions represents demagoguery at its worst. Urban residents have grown increasingly uncomfortable in recent years about the dangerous environment that surrounds them. But promising legal execution merely panders to these fears, rather than constructively taking care of them. Every thorough study has shown that the threat of death is not an effective deterrent. Proponents argue that, nevertheless, the death penalty is needed to prevent repeat offenders. The prospects of a convicted mass murder roving through the Square after getting parole is indeed frightening. But the solution is tougher sentencing standards, not killing felons.

Before the state Supreme Court struck down the law, a disproportionately high number of poor and minority prisoners got the death sentence. It is unlikely that, if the provisions return, stricter justice will accompany it. Citizens should vote "no."

Question 3: Radioactive Wastes

Another blatant attempt to play on gut fears is Question 3. This referendum would impose severe limitations on the future construction of nuclear plants and on the storage of low-level radioactive waste. While this complicated matter rightly elicits concern, a popular vote, especially in this form, is not the way to deal with it.

The ballot wording is a full page of fine print, and it still represents only a summary of the question voters will be deciding on. It is problematic that more than a handful of citizens will understand the implications of this measure.

And, on careful examination, the results would be grave. An odd

Consider one drawback of a "yes" vote. Recently enacted federal legislation will soon allow Massachusetts and other Northeastern states to dispose of low-level radioactive waste in the region, rather than shipping it west or south as fewer currently do. Delegates from each of the area states are now meeting to come up with a mutual solution. Yet Question 3 requires that Massachusetts voters must, in a subsequent referendum, ratify that agreement.

Citizen input is necessary on such an issue, and the current negotiations between states would provide for public hearings on the matter. But because Question 3 mandates a formal statewide referendum, a "yes" vote tomorrow could logistically keep Massachusetts out of an agreement with other states. Not only could referenda planning drag on beyond the deadline for the joint approval of the states, but other states have also expressed reservations about dealing with Bay State negotiators, whose bargaining promises could be invalidated by the results of a popular referendum.

The provision would also hamper medical research, which often creates such wastes as a by-product. While the wording actually exempts for biomedical research, scientists insist that this is a lark, because these researchers would have to set up their own disposal sites--a highly expensive, if not economically impossible proposition. Legislators are effectively handling this issue, and citizens should allow then a free hand to continue, and vote "no."

Question 4: The Bottle Bill

Question 4 would uphold the legislature's decision earlier this year to impose a deposit on beverage containers. Voters should ignore the ridiculous industry-sponsored ads claiming that the measure, by forcing stores to maintain a collection of dirty bottles, will strengthen the Commonwealth population. (Stores have been using pesticides to kill bugs for years, without harmful side effects.) Citizens should instead note the tremendous success that similar laws in other states have had, in decreasing litter and saving energy.

They should also ignore industry's contention that the bottle bill would result overall in a loss of jobs. Though some posts in the beverage industry might disappear, several studies show they will be more than made up for by the jobs generated through the recycling and returning of bottles.

Question 5: Nuclear War

The nationally related referendum. Question 5, asks the people to ask the President to "work vigorously to negotiate a mutual nuclear weapons moratorium and reduction with appropriate verification with the Soviet Union and other nations." The wording is so vague that it does not endorse the simplistic freeze, nor does it endorse President Reagan's bellicose rhetoric. Basically, it gauges public opposition to nuclear was. We hope most are opposed, and that they will vote "yes."

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