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In Mass., Ballot Questions Have Many Audiences

This article is more than 8 years old.

For frustrated Massachusetts voters, the state constitution provides a safety valve - an initiative petition process that allows policy questions to be put directly on the ballot.

The questions have resulted in major changes, from setting a cap on how much local taxes can be increased to decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and ending greyhound dog racing.

But sometimes voters aren't the intended audience for the questions, at least not at first. Activists can use the threat of an initiative to pressure lawmakers to take action before a measure reaches the ballot box.

Earlier this year - after lawmakers approved a law applying the state's 6.25 percent sales tax to computer and software services - opponents quickly filed a question that would have repealed the tax.

Even before they could collect the tens of thousands of signatures needed to put the question on the ballot, lawmakers backtracked and killed the tax. The question wasn't the sole reason for the reversal, but it helped add heft to the repeal effort.

This week, a day after the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts said it had collected far more than the required number of signatures to put a question on the 2014 ballot to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 per hour over two years, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to increase the wage to $11 over three years and link future hikes to inflation. The House hasn't taken up the measure.

Again, the question wasn't the sole reason for the bill's movement, but it provides another means to hike the minimum wage if lawmakers opt not to approve the measure.

Sometimes lawmakers act too late to pull a question from the ballot.

Last year, supporters of a question intended to require automakers to share diagnostic and repair information with car owners and independent repair shops, filed the question and collected the needed signatures in part hoping lawmakers would act.

By the time the Legislature passed a slightly different version of the so-called "right to repair" bill, the question was already on the ballot. Voters approved the measure, leaving two versions of the law on the books and forcing lawmakers to reconcile the two this year.

The state constitution anticipates the pressures that a proposed ballot question can place on lawmakers even before voters weigh in.

That's why the signature-gathering process is broken into two phases.

During the initial phase supporters have to collect a number of certified signatures equal to 3 percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor during the prior state election. This election cycle that means at least 68,911 certified signatures.

The question is then sent up to Beacon Hill, where lawmakers can choose to approve or ignore it.

If they don't pass it, supporters have to collect a second, smaller batch of certified signatures - one half of one percent of the votes cast for governor, or 11,485 certified signatures this cycle.

Sometimes the effort to pressure elected officials can fall on deaf ears, with lawmakers voting to overturn or block a new law even after voters have approved it.

When Massachusetts voters approved a 2000 ballot question designed to gradually lower the state income tax from 5.95 percent to 5 percent, lawmakers voted to stop the decrease at 5.3 percent.

Voters can also send mixed signals.

In 1998, 58 percent backed a so-called "clean elections" question which provided public money to candidates who agreed to fundraising and spending limits.

Democratic leaders bristled at the restrictions and in 2002 placed their own non-binding question on the ballot asking voters if they supported "taxpayer money being used to fund political campaigns."

Nearly 66 percent rejected the measure - effectively flip-flopping on an issue they approved four years earlier.

Lawmakers pointed to the second question when they voted to eliminate funding for the law in 2003.

This program aired on November 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.




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