September 30, 2015

In addition to the recent attention to the policies proposed by the 2016 Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates, the 2016 electoral cycle could also see significant Massachusetts state policy changes made at the ballot box.  Earlier this month, the Commonwealth began the review and certification process to place various public policy proposals on the ballot for the 2016 election. In recent years, interest groups dissatisfied with perceived legislative inaction on their issues has spurred the filing of ballot initiatives and referendums as an alternative way to create public policy. The 2016 election follows a very active 2014 cycle in this regard, which included ballot initiatives to expand the so-called Bottle Bill, which was defeated, and another to expand Paid, Earned Sick Time, which was approved.

Interested parties must endure a lengthy process to have their proposal placed on the statewide ballot. In fact, the requirements are so stringent that only a small percentage of proposals make it through the vetting process – in 2012, three of the 31 proposals made it to the ballot.

In anticipation of the 2016 election, advocates filed a total of 35 proposals for review and approval of the Attorney General and Secretary of State. Of these, 22 were certified by the Attorney General and now proceed to the second phase of signature-gathering and review.

Among the 22 possible ballot questions are the following:

An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools

Charter school advocates have actively worked to expand access to charter schools in the Commonwealth over the past decade, with some success. Charter schools, or public schools that operate independently from school districts, have been promoted by supporters as a way to increase the availability of a strong education for the state’s youth, especially in areas of the state where there is poor school performance. Currently, there are 80 charter schools in Massachusetts, and the proposed ballot initiative would allow the state to authorize up to 12 new charter schools every year. Preference would be given to applicants in the 25 percent lowest performing school districts, including communities like Boston where there are 13,000 students on the waitlist. While elected officials such as Governor Baker support the concept, major organizations such as the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association strongly oppose the expansion because it would take state funding and resources away from public schools at a time when they need it the most.

The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act

Over the past decade, advocates have used ballot initiatives to allow Massachusetts residents to weigh in on lessening marijuana restrictions. In 2008, voters approved a measure that decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and voters approved in 2012 the legalization of medical marijuana. Now, Bay State Repeal and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol have proposed separate ballot initiatives that would legalize the use, possession, and growing of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts for residents 21 years and older. Advocates of legalization argue that the state could generate tens of millions in revenue to be used to fund state programs and is no more dangerous than alcohol. Opponents, however, argue that marijuana is a gateway drug and will exacerbate drug abuse in the state.

An Initiative Petition for a Law Relating to Fairer Scheduling for Workers

As part of a continuing effort to change the working experience for thousands of low-wage workers, advocates have also filed a petition to require employers give advance notice of scheduling changes in retail and fast-food establishments.  Targeted toward workplaces with more than 75 workers, the petition would require 14 days advance notice of any changes to the schedule, even those as the request of the employee.  A penalty of 1 to 4 hours of additional pay to the effected employee would be required for each violation to this new law.  Advocates say that this would give low-wage workers some dependability and reliability, as well as ensure fairness in scheduling.  Opponents of the measure such as the Retailers Association of Massachusetts are mobilizing to defeat it, citing the difficulty that this would present to some small businesses in the wake of new laws increasing the minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave.

An Act to Prevent Cruelty to Farm Animals

This petition seeks to eliminate the practice of “farm animal confinement” in Massachusetts and also prohibits the sale of any shell eggs, whole veal and whole pork derived from confined animals by 2022. The measure is supported by the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, who argue that the confinement targeted in the proposed law amounts to torture.  Opponents, including the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, have indicated that the ballot question would significantly increase the cost of food for consumers.

Amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth to Provide Resources for Education and Transportation through an additional tax on incomes in excess of One Million Dollars

Every year, state legislators and the executive branch draft and negotiate the fiscal year budget, which involves intense discussions about the distribution of state funds. In an effort to increase revenues, Raise Up Massachusetts has proposed imposing an additional four percent income tax on all earnings above $1 million, and thus implementing a tiered income tax system as opposed to the current 5.15 percent flat tax rate. Unlike other ballot initiatives, this proposal seeks to change a provision in the Massachusetts Constitution, and thus would have to be approved by voters in two consecutive election cycles.

Massachusetts Equitable Health Care Pricing Act and Massachusetts Fair Health Care Pricing Act

As the state continues to lead the way in healthcare reform, cost containment is a significant issue.  One major factor in statewide healthcare costs is insurance payments to hospitals – typically, hospitals are able to negotiate reimbursement rates with insurers for covered services, based upon the hospital’s particular profile.  This system can overinflate payments to large powerful hospitals while threatening community hospitals that do not have the same clout in bargaining with insurers.  These two ballot initiatives curb excessive payments by forcing insurance plans to renegotiate lucrative contracts with hospitals – setting a ceiling of 120 percent of the average to rein in big hospitals, as well as instituting a price floor of 90 percent of the average, ensuring protection for community hospitals. Supporters argue that it will reform the Commonwealth’s lopsided healthcare system, reducing healthcare spending by $267 million. Opponents say that the state’s 2012 healthcare cost containment reforms need time to take effect before considering new regulations.

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