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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

The bad business of ballot questions

Florida voters head to the polls to cast their early ballots.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Some days it feels like the fate of Massachusetts hangs on every ballot question, especially in the thick of election season, when grand promises and dire warnings vie for voters’ attention.

Look at this year’s Question 1, which would impose new rules on hospitals to ensure that nurses don’t have to care for too many patients at any one time. Supporters of this measure are selling a future in which hospital patients get more attention and better care. Meanwhile, opponents see a scarred health care landscape with desperate hospitals and spiraling health costs.


If history is any guide, we may never know which side has the better argument. After votes are tallied and the fog of Election Day clears, high-stakes ballot battles tend to fade from view, never to be examined again.

Did the “right to repair” initiative of 2012 — forcing car companies to share diagnostic data with independent repair shops — actually reduce the cost of car repairs in the state? There’s been no detailed follow-up. Were liquor store owners bolstered by the elimination of the sales tax on alcohol, or did shoppers continue to drive across the border to tax-free New Hampshire? No one seems to have checked.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to do this kind of analysis. You have to find a way to isolate and track the focused impact of the ballot initiative alone, filtering out broader movements in the national economy and shifting social mores.

As an example of the challenge, think back to 2012, when Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana over objections that we were headed down a slippery slope to full legalization.

Right on cue, voters embraced full legalization a mere four years later.

Does this vindicate the slippery slope argument? Maybe, but consider some context. Connecticut also legalized medical marijuana in 2012, but it hasn’t (yet?) jumped to full legalization; Maine had medical use for 16 years before it plumped for legal weed.


The more relevant factor in Massachusetts’ turn to legalization may be that the nation as a whole is at a turning point — as is Canada — with ever-more states licensing pot shops and two-thirds of adults telling Gallup they support legalization.

Still, rather than throw our hands up at the challenge, let’s dig in to one of those hard-fought and fast-forgotten cases, to see if the real-world havoc that was feared by opponents ever materialized.

In 2014, progressive groups successfully pushed a ballot initiative to guarantee sick leave for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts workers who lacked that workplace benefit.

The resistance focused on costs, especially for small businesses that don’t always have replacement employees they can call upon when frontline workers don’t show up to wait tables or handle the cash register.

Here’s Burlington lawyer David Cormier, who summarized the critics’ position for Globe readers:

“What the proponents fail to state is the substantial burden such policy would have on small employers, not only in terms of payroll and administrative costs, but also in implementation and legal costs. These costs would not only chill the current hiring process, but also cause many small employers to simply go it alone or close up shop altogether, thereby reducing the amount of money in workers’ pockets and leaving workers in worse situations than they face without mandated sick time policies.”


It’s a concerning chain of risks, from shrinking pay to shuttered businesses. But it doesn’t seem to have happened. Four years after voters approved this change, and three years after the implementation date, Massachusetts’ small businesses are doing just fine.

This is a hard thing to measure directly because there isn’t a lot of detailed data that separates small businesses from large ones. But we can look at some of the retail industries that were most opposed to the paid sick leave initiative and most nurturing of small businesses, like restaurants, hair and nail salons, and florists.

There are now more restaurants and more restaurant workers in Massachusetts than there were in 2014. Ditto for beauty salons and other personal care shops. And the increases are very much in line with what you see across the rest of the country.

Wages are up in these industries, too, having risen a bit faster in Massachusetts than elsewhere.

Things look a little worse for what the government calls “miscellaneous storefronts” like florists and stationers, as there are fewer such establishments than in 2014. But total employment and average wages have both grown.

Does this count as definitive proof that paid sick days didn’t harm small businesses in Massachusetts? Certainly not. It’s possible these businesses would be doing even better in a world without mandatory sick days. But it’s hard to argue that the ballot initiative was particularly devastating, given that overall performance in this part of the Massachusetts economy has followed an upward trajectory similar to the rest of the nation since 2014.


Even if you’re not convinced by this first-pass assessment, that only brings us back to the main issue: If ballot initiatives are really as important as the rhetoric of election season suggests, then someone should be monitoring their real-world impact in a more rigorous and more definitive way.

In the case of Question 1 and nurse staffing, there’s actually a ready candidate, namely the state’s Health Policy Commission, which is tasked with monitoring health spending statewide and which has already issued a projection of the likely cost.

But this is the exception. In most cases, there’s no agency set up to monitor the impact of ballot initiatives — or legislative acts, for that matter. When the state introduces new tax breaks or other incentives for economic development, it rarely bothers to check whether the promised benefits are actually realized.

Rather than follow the experimenters’ creed — try, fail, improve — we tend to take a more complacent approach to politics in Massachusetts: Act slowly, mostly when forced by lobbyists or voters, and don’t bother assessing the impact. No wonder we’ve lost our place as one of the leading laboratories of democratic innovation.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the nation. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.