Firm Seeks to Buy their Own Laws

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The420Guy

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Jan.22, 00
Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2000 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Frank Phillips, Globe Staff
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Big-money donors and corporations are pouring money into Massachusetts to create sweeping laws through the ballot process, a development that is alarming reformers who say the initiative petition system is being corrupted. ''You used to just buy a car or electronic equipment, but now you can buy a law,'' said George Pillsbury, executive director of the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project, a group that monitors campaign financing and expenditures.
George Soros, a New York financier, and two wealthy donors from Ohio and Arizona contributed nearly $400,000 to hire signature gatherers to win a spot on the ballot for a drug measure. Their initiative would allow low-level drug dealers to receive treatment instead of jail time, and make it tougher for law enforcement officials to seize assets from those accused of drug crimes.
AT&T Corp. has so far given $1 million to a campaign to fight a ballot measure that would require cable companies to open their lines to competitors. Grace Internet Capital, the owner of several Internet companies, spent $600,000 to get the law on the ballot next November.
Fidelity Investments, which is trying to promote charitable giving, spent $175,000 to win a spot for a state income tax deduction for charitable donations. Putnam Investments kicked in another $25,000.
Government watchdogs say they are alarmed at the role corporations and out-of-state financial interests are playing in the upcoming election, bypassing the Legislature and its public hearing process. In fact, this election cycle appears to mark the completion of a shift that began in 1994 and transformed the initiative petition process from voluntary citizens' efforts to well-financed operations of paid signature gatherers.
Even antitax leader Barbara Anderson and her followers, once the model for citizen participation in the initiative process, had to rely on Governor Paul Cellucci and other Republicans to raise funds to pay a Nevada firm $100,000 to collect signatures for the measure to roll back the state income tax. A citizens' effort in 1998 failed to gather enough signatures to qualify.
The only true grass-roots drive to win a ballot spot this cycle appears to be the campaign to ban dog racing in Massachusetts. Those advocates gathered 83,526 signatures - well above the necessary 57,000 required to qualify for the ballot - but only spent $330 to do so.
Pillsbury said the initiative petition process was created early in the last century to allow citizens frustrated by legislative inaction to take their cases directly to the voters. But he said the framers of the constitutional amendment made the process ''intentionally burdensome'' so that it would not be used frivolously. He said they also envisioned it to be a voluntary citizens' enterprise. ''Now what we're seeing with these professional signature-gathering firms is the burden removed,'' Pillsbury said.
The ballot proposals for this year offer dramatic changes. Soros' measure in particular is raising concern from law enforcement officials. Michael Sullivan, the Plymouth district attorney, said the proposal would create legal loopholes for drug dealers and traffickers to escape punishment. ''This would be a huge setback,'' Sullivan said, saying the state's tough drug laws have contributed heavily to the decline in the crime rate. The law would allow defendants to declare themselves at risk of becoming drug-addicted and ask a judge to send them to a drug treatment program rather than jail. It would also make it more difficult for law enforcement authorities to force the forfeiture of money and property in low-level drug crimes. Sullivan and other law enforcement officials say they are convinced that Soros' campaign is aimed at eventually legalizing marijuana and lowering the penalties for trafficking. ''This becomes the first step toward decriminalizing drug dealing,'' Sullivan said.
Soros and the other two financiers - Phoenix businessman John Sperling and Peter Lewis, a Cleveland insurance executive - have not advocated legalizing drugs. But they have bankrolled efforts around the country to ease drug laws. For example, they have financed campaigns to allow for the medicinal use of marijuana. Robert Stewart, a spokesman for Soros' Massachusetts-sponsored campaign, disputes Sullivan's assertion that the ballot question would lead to decriminalization of drugs. ''It doesn't gut the antidrug laws,'' Stewart said. ''It raises the bar for civil forfeitures. There will still be seizures and forfeitures on the criminal side.'' Stewart said the proposed changes in the drug laws would only apply to small-time dealers and traffickers. He said sentencing discretion is left to judges, and the law would screen virtually all violent and serious criminals out of the process.
Pillsbury believes the petition process has become so corrupted by big money interests that the state needs a law banning the use of paid signature-gatherers. But that may be legally dubious. A similar ban in Colorado was thrown out by the courts. ''We have to go back to the framers' original intentions, that it be only a bona fide citizens' movement,'' Pillsbury said.