BOSTON (SHNS) – Efforts to subject the Legislature to outside scrutiny, reform the role of standardized MCAS tests, allow cities and towns to regulate rent levels, and reshape rights and benefits for on-demand drivers took steps Wednesday toward potentially being decided by voters in 2024.
After months of noncommittal answers and behind-the-scenes whispers, the outer limits of the ballot question universe became clear as the deadline arrived for supporters to file measures they want to bring to the ballot box.
Altogether, 42 ballot questions were filed by the 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday, proposing 38 laws that could be decided at the 2024 ballot and four Constitutional amendments that could be decided in the 2026 election, according to Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office.
Another 12 questions had been filed in late 2022 with a goal of reaching the 2024 or 2026 ballot.
Supporters filed multiple versions of the same question on several topics, including nine versions of a revived app-based driver question and eight versions of a proposed law requiring voter identification. Filing multiple drafts with minor differences is a common strategy campaigns use to keep their options open while they figure out which draft has the best chance of legal and political success.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association followed through on one of two initiatie petitions it had been weighing. Activists with the union joined with educators, parents and recent graduates to file a measure that would uncouple the MCAS exam from graduation requirements, but MTA opted against pursuing a ballot question related to higher education funding and affordability.
MTA officials said the union’s board of directors still needs to decide at a meeting Sunday whether to launch a full campaign behind the initiative petition, which would keep the standardized tests in place but no longer require students to pass the exam to graduate.
Their proposal is similar to one filed a few days before the deadline by Shelley Scruggs, a Lexington woman who said she wants to eliminate the graduation requirement on behalf of her 15-year-old son.
Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, filed a ballot question that would grant cities and towns a range of new “tenant protection” options, including the ability to impose rent control, which voters banned statewide via a 1994 ballot question.
“This afternoon, acting in my personal capacity as a renter, I filed a petition with 15 residents of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston to preserve the option of a 2024 ballot question relative to lifting the ban on rent control and enabling local tenant protections. More to come!” Connolly, who has a similar but broader bill (H 1304) pending before the Housing Committee, tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
Previous efforts to reverse the ban or revive the policies in a handful of specific communities have failed to gain momentum with legislative leaders.
Other questions filed by Wednesday’s deadline would gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to the same as the general minimum wage, limit political spending by “foreign-influenced businesses,” and halt the state’s gas tax when gasoline prices are above a certain threshold.
One proposed constitutional amendment would once again allow Bay Staters incarcerated on felony offenses to vote in state and federal elections. In 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment disenfranchising incarcerated felons by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.
A pair of measures seek to decriminalize psychedelic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms.
Proponents said the measures, which are backed by the New Approach group that helped secure passage of similar ballot questions in Colorado and Oregon, would give Bay Staters access to new substances that can treat mental health issues.
“A growing body of research from some of the nation’s most respected medical research institutions shows that psychedelics hold tremendous promise in treating depression, end-of-life anxiety, and other serious mental health challenges,” said Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Franklin King, who was one of the first voters to sign the initiative petition. “Evidence is likewise clear that the current legal scheduling of naturally occurring psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin is neither appropriate nor scientifically based.”
The Bay Staters for Natural Medicine group said it supports the version of the two ballot questions that would allow for home cultivation of mushrooms for personal use.
Bringing a Beacon Hill Transparency Battle to Voters
Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s transparency fight against the House and Senate Democrats with whom she once served might become a matter for voters to decide.
DiZoglio worked with a group of transparency advocates, current and former elected officials from both parties, and other public figures to file a proposed state law that would explicitly permit the auditor’s office to audit the Legislature.
Herself a former representative and senator, DiZoglio has been pushing for months to audit her former employers. Top Democrats have resisted, arguing she does not have that authority and that doing so would violate the “separation of powers” required by the Constitution.
In an interview, DiZoglio said she is still pursuing other routes to audit the Legislature, including a push to file a lawsuit she formally launched last week. Putting the issue before voters, she said, is “another tool in the toolbelt.”
“Taxpayers deserve an audit that is able to be done without resistance from their elected officials. The Legislature has been audited at least 113 times throughout history, demonstrating clear precedent,” she said. “We’ve asked the AG to support our efforts through litigation, as you know. In the meantime, since top legislators seem to be confused about the language of the law, we are asking the people of Massachusetts to help make it crystal clear.”
Northwind Strategies founder Doug Rubin, who was a consultant for DiZoglio’s campaign, is listed as the ballot question committee chair.
Rubin said original signatories who gave their support to the measure include first-term Republican Rep. Marcus Vaughn, former Democrat Reps. Jonathan Hecht and Cory Atkins, former Republican Rep. Dan Winslow, former Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Jennifer Nassour, former Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, and Act on Mass executive director Erin Leahy.
The law creating the auditor’s office grants it the ability to audit “all departments, offices, commissions, institutions and activities of the commonwealth.” The House and Senate are neither explicitly listed nor explicitly exempted.
DiZoglio has argued that the Legislature is a “department” under that definition — an idea not shared by legislative leaders. The ballot question would circumvent debate over interpretation of that word by adding “the general court itself” to the list of covered entities.
Campbell, who like DiZoglio won her first statewide election in November, will now play a role in two different avenues of action the auditor is pursuing. In addition to deciding whether DiZoglio’s lawsuit moves forward, Campbell will be tasked with reviewing whether the ballot question the auditor backs passes constitutional muster (a legal decision that does not reflect Campbell’s opinion of the proposal’s policy merits).
DiZoglio told the News Service that although she supports the ballot question, “it is not official business so no taxpayer resources from my office would be expended.”
A More Complicated Round Two on App-Based Drivers
After years of debate but little action, voters might get not one but two different chances to weigh in on major workplace issues for drivers on platforms like Uber and Lyft.
An industry-backed group working with some drivers filed nine versions of a ballot question that would define app-based drivers as independent contractors under state law while extending them some new benefits, like an earnings floor 20 percent higher than minimum wage.
At the same time, 32BJ SEIU — which opposes the company-backed question — and other Uber and Lyft drivers submitted their own measure that would give drivers the ability to unionize, pitching it as a way to counter a “broken dynamic.”
It could become a confusing situation for voters if both questions advance all the way to the ballot.
And in another massive wrinkle, Uber and Lyft are staring down litigation from Massachusetts prosecutors alleging that their current practice of classifying drivers as contractors instead of employees violates the state’s wage and hour laws to boost profit. Now-Gov. Maura Healey sued the companies in July 2020, and the slow-moving case is expected to go to trial in May 2024, according to an official in the attorney general’s office.
The unionization ballot question is a narrower version of legislation that 32BJ SEIU, an influential labor group, continues to push on Beacon Hill.
It would allow drivers for on-demand ride platforms like Uber and Lyft the ability to select a union via a card check process, then collectively bargain over topics such as minimum wages, benefits and working conditions.
Roxana Rivera, the union’s head, said Massachusetts would become the first state in the nation to give app-based drivers not covered by the National Labor Relations Act the ability to organize.
Rivera said drivers have dealt with shrinking pay for years, often face “unfair deactivations without due process” and bear significant vehicle upkeep costs themselves.
“We believe that the only way in which to lift these jobs out of poverty and to basically put some power back into the workers’ hands is that they actually have the right to collective bargaining, just as many workers do in Massachusetts,” she said in an interview.
32BJ SEIU still views the broader legislation (H 1099 / S 666) pending before the Financial Services Committee as the best option but wanted to “keep every tool available,” Rivera said.
The independent contractor measure from the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers coalition reflects a second pass at the question after the Supreme Judicial Court in 2022 tossed an earlier version because it improperly combined multiple topics.
Organizers say they filed nine options for a new version to address the commingling issues that justices saw last year.
“We heard loud and clear that the SJC had concerns about relatedness, and we know that trial lawyers and labor will once again try to use legal loopholes to deny voters the chance to weigh in on this important issue,” Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the ballot campaign, said in a statement. “We have provided the Attorney General’s office with a number of options for certification that should address these concerns and ensure that voters have an opportunity to make their voices heard.”
The companies and drivers who agree argue that workers on the platforms prefer independent contractor status and the flexibility it offers to being dubbed official employees.
At a Boston Common event kicking off the company-backed ballot question campaign redux, attendees held signs reading “drivers want to remain independent” and “flexibility and benefits.”
“I have no interest in other employment-based transportation jobs because they will mean I couldn’t take my children to school or further my education,” said Pierre-Louis, a Lyft driver who is studying criminal justice. “The labor[-supported] bills will only put me further away from my goals.”
During the 2021-2022 cycle, four gig economy giants — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — together contributed $43.5 million to the ballot question committee, according to state campaign finance records. Some of that money consisted of in-kind donations labeled “pro-rated staff support time and expenses” from the companies, and about $2.4 million from Instacart is labeled a “loan repayment.”
The new version of the committee has not yet reported any political fundraising or spending.
One Hurdle Down, Several to Go
Campaigns that want to put a proposed new law before voters in 2024 or a proposed constitutional amendment in 2026 needed to file their measures by the end of the day Wednesday. But not every question submitted will make it to the ballot, and recent history shows only a few typically survive every cycle.
Campbell’s office will now review each measure and either certify, which keeps a proposal moving forward in the process, or decline to certify, which ends its progress. Those decisions are not based on how Campbell herself or her deputies feel about the merits of the policies, but instead on whether the questions comply with a set of requirements in the state Constitution governing initiative petitions.
Questions must be “in proper form for submission to the people,” contain subjects that are “related” or “mutually dependent,” and cannot feature a proposal “substantially the same” as anything that went before voters in either of the two most recent biennial statewide elections. They also can’t tackle certain topics, like religion, judges, specific state appropriations and portions of the state’s Declaration of Rights.
In the last cycle, for example, Healey’s office declined to certify a proposal to ban smoking in multi-family housing because it was not properly written as a piece of legislation, a measure that would criminalize using someone’s social media posts to get them fired because it violated freedom of speech rights, and a question seeking a range of health care industry financial changes because it contained too many disparate pieces “to be considered a ‘unified’ statement of public policy.”
Campbell’s certification decisions are due by Sept. 6. Campaigns who get the green light to continue need to collect 74,574 signatures — 3 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates for governor, excluding blanks, in the most recent election — in a bit less than three months. Signatures must be filed with local officials by Nov. 22 and then the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6.
Ballot questions with enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024, where lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute or decline to take action. If lawmakers opt against action by May 1, 2024, campaigns must collect another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19, 2024, then the secretary of state’s office by July 3, 2024.
[Alison Kuznitz and Sophie Hauck contributed reporting.]