Massachusetts has three referendum questions this year, fewer than at any time since the 1970s. That is probably good, because the recent trend has been in the other direction. One year, California had over 40 questions for voters to consider, which is a practical impossibility — that’s what legislatures are elected to do! But three is a good, digestible number. Here’s our take:

Question 1 comes courtesy of gubernatorial candidate Carla Howell’s Libertarian Party. It would eliminate the personal-income tax, effective July 1, 2003 — thereby reducing the state’s tax take from its citizens by about $10 billion a year. Proponents note that state spending has grown by $13 billion under Republican rule since the putative tax-and-spend liberal Michael Dukakis left office, in 1991.

We cannot endorse this amendment, which would lop off 40 percent of state revenues with a single swing of the ax. Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney says he is committed to returning the income tax to 5 percent, as the voters demanded in a 2000 referendum, by 2006. But he reluctantly acknowledges that doing so won’t be easy. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien approves a 5 percent rate in principle, but sets no date for effecting it. The major-party candidates thus agree that ending the income tax altogether would throw the state’s credit and economy into chaos, and they are right. Nevertheless, the duplicity of a succession of legislatures in failing to return the income tax to 5 percent — as was promised when it was raised during the last recession, in 1989 — is palpable. We therefore wouldn’t be upset if Question 1 got a good vote to protest this history, and to declare that the people meant it when they voted a 5 percent rate in 2000.

Question 2 would replace transitional bilingual education for non-English-speaking public-school students with a one-year English-immersion program, after which students would go into English-only classes. The impetus is that “transitional” has often come to mean three, four, five years of separate classes — in effect, a tracking system, in which preponderantly Spanish-speaking students get an inferior education.

The bilingual-education establishment has raised a number of red herrings about Question 2, including that teachers could be sued for persistent noncompliance. That clause was inserted because in California, where a similar measure passed, some bilingual teachers have refused to be bound by it. In fact, no teacher is going to be sued for saying ” Hola!” Only a teacher who repeatedly opted for civil disobedience could be subject to a parent’s civil complaint.

The proposed law provides for exceptions – for example, students arriving in America in the fourth or fifth grade with no knowledge of English may need, and would receive, more than one year of English immersion.

We regard Question 2 as a rarity in modern politics: a real reform. We endorse it unqualifiedly.

Question 3 is a nonbinding advisory question dealing with the detritus of the so-called clean- elections brouhaha — which has been going on since a referendum authorizing public financing of political campaigns was approved, in 1998. The question simply asks: “Do you support taxpayer money being used to fund political campaigns for public office in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?”

We have our doubts about this question, but do not endorse a “no” vote. That is because both the question and its wording are the contrivance of legislators who for four years have refused to implement the will of the people, as spoken — by a two-thirds majority — in 1998. Their decision needs to be implemented, which means funded, for several election cycles before a judgment about the wisdom of public funding can be fairly made. We recommend a “yes” vote.



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