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No easy path to placing Olympics question on ballot

A rendering of an Olympic stadium was released by the Boston 2024 planning committee in June.
A rendering of an Olympic stadium was released by the Boston 2024 planning committee in June.(Elkus Manfredi Architects via AP)

It was a pivotal moment for Boston 2024: under mounting pressure to acknowledge public opposition to its plan to host the Olympics, the group said it would propose a statewide referendum and collect the signatures needed to place it on the November 2016 ballot.

If the measure failed to win majority support in Boston or statewide, Boston 2024 said it would abandon its Olympic bid.

“Let the voters vote,” John Fish, then chairman of the bid committee, said in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in March.

If only it were that simple.

John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast last March.
John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast last March.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

In the four months since Fish made that pronouncement, Boston 2024 has not proposed a ballot question or opened a political committee, the necessary first step to launch a referendum campaign. Bid leaders have apparently come to realize there is no easy path to placing such a question on the ballot.

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Under state law, referendums must propose or repeal laws and cannot be used to simply gauge public support for an Olympic bid. Only the Legislature can propose a question that would essentially ask voters their opinion on an issue like the bid.

Despite that roadblock, Olympic organizers say they are still exploring a way to give voters a voice in deciding whether Boston hosts the 2024 Summer Games.

“We are committed to ensuring that a clear, transparent ballot question is put before the voters to consider and we will only move forward if a majority of citizens of Massachusetts and Boston support it,” Erin Murphy, chief operating officer of Boston 2024, said in a statement. “There are a number of avenues to ensure that occurs and we are reviewing the options now.”

The only Olympic-related question currently headed toward the November 2016 ballot is led by Evan Falchuk, a former gubernatorial candidate. His referendum, however, would not be a simple a simple up-or-down vote on the Olympics.

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Evan Falchuk.
Evan Falchuk.(AP/Elise Amendola)

Falchuk’s measure would ban the state from spending money, taking on debt, issuing financial guarantees, or offering tax credits to support the 2024 Olympics. The only exception would be for state spending on transportation projects, even those projects that might help the Games.

Falchuk’s proposal is not designed to test overall public support for the Olympic bid because both opponents and supporters of Boston 2024 might vote for it.

Chris Dempsey, co-chair of No Boston Olympics, said his group supports Falchuk’s effort and Richard A. Davey, chief executive of Boston 2024, said in a radio interview last month that he might vote for the referendum, as well.

Boston 2024, however, has not taken an official stance on the question. A spokesman would say only that the bid committee is “reviewing it.” The only opposition to Falcuk’s question might come from voters who want the state to spend money on Olympic venues and operations — a small group, polling results suggest.

“The purpose is not to kill the bid,” said Thomas O. Bean, the lawyer for Falchuk’s ballot committee. “This ballot initiative is supportive of holding the Olympics with private funding.”

Falchuk acknowledged his question could make voters more likely to support a separate up-or-down question on the Games, by allaying concerns that the Olympics will drain state coffers. Polls have shown voters are more likely to support the bid if there were a guarantee that no taxpayer money would be used.

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“It’s just logical,” Falchuk said. “People are pretty clear about what they’re upset about and it’s really about the money — who pays.”

The group filed its proposed ballot language with the attorney general’s office last week. If the language is approved, supporters will have to collect 64,750 certified signatures, according to the group.

Boston 2024 officials, if they could find a way to craft a proposed law that would give voters a say on the Olympics, would have until Aug. 5 to submit a proposal to the attorney general’s office.

“From a logistical point of view, you would have to be working on it now, if you’re really serious about it,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top elections official.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Another option would be for Boston 2024 to place non-binding questions on the ballot in all 40 state Senate districts. Those questions would instruct the senator from that district to either support or oppose the Olympic bid. But that route could be cumbersome and labor-intensive for Boston 2024, requiring separate signature-gathering efforts in all 40 districts.

The clearest path for the group would be to ask the Legislature to place a non-binding referendum on the statewide ballot that would ask voters directly if they support hosting the 2024 Games. Boston 2024 has discussed the idea with legislative leaders, who have showed no inclination to take up the issue. To place a question on the November 2016 ballot, the Legislature would have to act by July of next year, Galvin said.

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In the meantime, Boston 2024 is building a volunteer operation to help build support for the bid that could be easily harnessed for a ballot campaign. After hiring prominent political strategists, it has enlisted 4,000 supporters, some of whom have leafleted homes, placed signs in store windows, and canvassed at athletic events and parades, much as they would if they were working for a ballot campaign.


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.