Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, unanimously rejecting Attorney General Martha Coakley’s body-block of a ballot referendum on casinos, injected life into the state’s two biggest stories of the political year: the still-somnolent race for governor and the still-flailing effort to implement casinos.
Massachusetts: take our gubernatorial candidates and gambling palaces, please.
But the excitement over the campaign ramifications and the prospect of voters having a say in the future of the gambling industry have obscured juicy fights, some recently settled and some headed for November, over other ballot initiatives that range across state government.
For instance, hospitals and nurses arrived at an uneasy compromise last week to avert a popular vote on nurse staffing levels.
Any patient who has ever tried to assert his or her preeminence against a nurse knows how the hospital executives felt. The nurses came armed with a double-pronged tongue depressor: one petition mandating increased staffing levels and another to force increased disclosure of hospital CEO pay.
The bigwigs gagged, and gave way on the staffing level front (though not as much as some nurses’ advocates had hoped), and the nurses dropped the “financial transparency” effort.
Backers of an increased minimum wage similarly used the ballot box as a political lever. They pushed lawmakers up against a deadline, threatening to go to the voters with their demands, and backed off when Beacon Hill ceded, mostly.
Supporters of a measure pushing an expansion of the state’s bottle redemption policies have enjoyed less success in the Legislature. Under the proposal, water and other noncarbonated drinks would fall under the same classification as the nickel-a-can system. The “bottle bill” debate is a long-running donnybrook, snidely — and occasionally, depending on the source, joyously — referred to as a “full employment act” for the state’s legislative advocacy community.
Organizers of that initiative said they planned to turn in the requisite signatures to Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office on Wednesday.
Another question that appears headed for voters would ask whether employees at companies in Massachusetts with more than 10 workers should earn as many as 40 hours of paid sick time a year. Champions of that effort also turned in their signatures this week, with likely more than enough to clear the threshold for the ballot.
Employers call the proposal unaffordable and, privately, grumble that lawmakers have already made business growth here difficult enough without letting voters take a bite out of it. Backers insist it would bolster workplace health and productivity, and reduce employee turnover.
A third petition that seems fated for the hands of voters would also supersede the will of lawmakers, by striking from the 2013 gas tax law a provision that ties it to inflation. The easy rhetoric here is that legislators are so happy to raise taxes, they’ll do so in perpetuity, without even having to undergo the tiresome process of casting votes.
Again, opponents’ counterarguments go to unaffordability, but of a different kind. They say that the state’s transportation kitty is too strapped to forego the additional revenue. Advocates from the business and environmental lobbies, forming an unusual alliance, argue that transportation infrastructure here is in woeful disrepair and failing to meet the changing needs of a changing state.
Some of these arguments are rooted less in partisanship than in geography. Republicans in Western Massachusetts believe their roads need work as fervently as Democrats in Fall River and New Bedford believe their cities need commuter rail. But how to pay for them falls more along traditional party lines of thinking about what the state should, and can, fund — and how to pay for it.
The Legislature breaks for the summer at the end of July in election years for various reasons, some of which are delivered straight-faced. Making laws under the suddenly attentive eyes of the voters can lead to bad policy, goes one explanation.
And, this year, the casino question and fight for the corner office will command the headlines up until and after Election Day.
But, after lawmakers head for the beach and the campaign trail in August, decisions on a whole host of kitchen-table questions they have had before them — sometimes for years — could be wrested away by voters, just in time for them to wish they had them back.