Citizen Lawmakers

He may be remembered best for his bill requiring dogs to wear diapers. But Rosaire Rajotte has pitched 685 other legislative proposals to clean up the Commonwealth.

The retired maintenance man has filed more bills in the Massachusetts Legislature than many longtime legislators. And if you don’t believe him, “you can come here and count them,” he said, inviting us to visit his Northbridge home, where he keeps copies of every piece of legislation he’s filed since 1953.

In every state, residents can ask their legislators to propose a law on a pet topic. But only here can private citizens petition the Legislature on their own.

The practice — guaranteed in the state Constitution — is called the right of free petition. Although 41 other state constitutions grant that right, only Massachusetts still interprets it the way it was intended 200 years ago, says attorney Ken Bresler, author of a handbook on the subject, “Citizen’s Guide to Drafting Legislation.”

Constitution of Massachusetts Part the First (Declaration of Rights), Article XIX

“The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good: give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.”

While Rajotte, 78, a former selectman, is the state’s most prolific citizen lawmaker, dozens of other Massachusetts residents who have never been elected to any post file legislation every session. All it takes is an idea — and then a senator or representative willing to sign the blue (Senate) or ivory (House) filing forms.According to tradition, few refuse.

Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, says that he’ll give a citizen’s bill his signature even when he disagrees with it. That’s how he handled a Webster resident’s request for legislation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, which got a favorable recommendation from the Legislature’s health care committee last summer despite Moore’s opposition.

In fact, Moore estimates he has filed 25 to 30 citizen petitions in this two-year session, including at least a dozen for Rajotte. “I don’t think we have the monopoly on wisdom just because we get elected and work here in The Building,” Moore said. “A lot of [legislators] get their ideas from people in the district.”

Nevertheless, the number of citizen bills that win passage is relatively small. Rajotte has filed so many he can’t remember what happened to most. “Quite a lot of them” became law, he contends, citing one that gives real estate tax exemptions to recipients of the Purple Heart who don’t qualify for disability pensions and one that renamed Route 146 the “Purple Heart Highway.”

Like many citizen legislators, Rajotte seems to be in the business as much to make a point as to be recorded in the General Laws. He files bills on topics from car insurance to septic systems to charter schools for one simple reason: “Because I don’t agree with the Legislature. I’m the most disagreeable person there is…on the face of the earth. There are a lot of things that are unjust.”

Ironically, it’s impossible to determine precisely how many bills originate in the brains of ordinary folks and what percentage get passed. The Senate and House clerks do not keep track.

Bill Introductions and Enactments in State Legislatures
  1984-85 Bills Introduced Enacted Bills Introduced 1994-95 Enacted
Connecticut 5,488 1,347 4,542 666
Maine 2,391 1,020 2,214 955
Massachusetts* 18,125 1,305 15,020 912
New Hampshire 1,063 417 1,539 716
Rhode Island** 5,237 2,080 7,273 1,404
Vermont 941 287 1,224 250
Total for U.S. States*** 191,167 41,866
(21.9%)
202,838 40,107
(19.8%)
Source: The Decline of Representative Democracy (Alan Rosenthal). * Figures from the regular session of 1992-93 and special session of 1993-94 are used instead of figures for 1994-95. ** Figures from the special session of 1983-84 are used instead of figures for 1984-85. ***Does not include West Virginia.

Inquiring minds are left to wade through hundreds of pages of House and Senate docket books to count the number proposed, then to do a computer database search on the fate of each. And the lines can become blurred: If a legislator agrees with a citizen’s proposal, he or she is likely to sign on as a co-sponsor. That makes it more likely to win approval, but more difficult to distinguish from the rest of the filings.

If a legislator does not agree with the constituent’s idea, he or she usually files the bill “by request of” the private citizen. Without the legislative imprimatur, it is usually doomed to fail. There were about 100 “by request” bills among the 2,000 items in the Senate docket for 1997, and more than that among the 5,300 items in the House docket.

A random sampling reveals a range from the relevant to the ridiculous — attempts to protect the privacy of crime victims, to muzzle and restrain pit bulls in public areas, and to create a distinctive license plate for justices of the peace, to name a few. The overwhelming majority are stuck in legislative “study” and will never surface for a vote.

But Bresler, who used to be counsel to the House Committee on Bills in Third Reading, says the right of free petition is significant despite the fact that few citizen bills become law. It makes legislators listen. “If legislators were free to say, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ citizens wouldn’t bother,” he says. “But this way, citizens get to vie for responsiveness.”

Bresler, now running for state representative in Newton, wrote his “Citizen’s Guide” to encourage more people to propose legislation. The yellow-covered pamphlet, available at the State House Bookstore, explains the process of filing a bill and offers tips, such as how to avoid linguistic “gobbledygook” (e.g. instead of “forthwith,” use “immediately”) and how to write the title (“An Act relative to…).

Meet the Author
From time to time, citizen lawmakers can cause the elected ones some trouble. Moore tells the story of a citizen bill he signed while serving in the House in the early ’80s that proposed requiring cats and dogs to be neutered if they weren’t going to breed. He received many irate letters, “including one suggesting that I should be neutered,” he said.

Even more memorable was the the time Moore’s predecessor in the Senate, former Majority Leader Louis P. Bertonazzi, D-Milford, signed a bill for Rajotte apparently without reading it. One day, Bertonazzi got a call from a wire service reporter asking why he wanted to make dogs wear diapers. (Rajotte thought something had to be done to keep the sidewalks clean.) The proposal made national news. “Ever since then,” Moore said laughing, Bertonazzi became “much more careful” about which citizen bills he would sign.