IN NOVEMBER, about one third of the Massachusetts population will head to the polls, where voters will decide whether to raise taxes, to reduce taxes, to create a new state bureaucracy to manage a state benefit program, to set staffing requirements at hospitals, and to increase minimum wages for regular and tipped workers.
These decisions will determine more than $5 billion in policy decisions. To understand the significance of this number, compare it with the entire annual budget for the city of Boston, which stands at $3 billion.
Most election years, there are a slew of ballot questions before voters, reflective of our state’s proud status as a citizen-driven government. This year is certainly no different, with as many as six questions, plus a referendum, placed before voters. However, the increasingly popular push to legislate by ballot has become a political tool for groups or individuals looking to implement one-sided policy that creates winners and losers.
Ballot campaigns are often designed to sell voters on high-level, appealing concepts such as “Do you want millionaires to pay more taxes?” or “Do you want to pay less sales tax?” This approach disregards the complicated nuance that characterizes public policy. In 2018, even though voters will be asked yes-or-no questions, the resulting policies run dozens of pages long, and are filled with details that might lead a voter to be less inclined to favor or oppose a question. How many voters will read, much less understand, the full impact, of these proposals?
Developing public policies takes hours of analysis, research, and work. To get things right, it cannot be a winner-take-all design. We need look no further than the ballot question to legalize marijuana, and the subsequent work it has taken to refine that law in the years since, to understand that policy-by-ballot should not become the norm.
Some will argue that major policy decisions must go to the ballot because the Legislature hasn’t adequately done its job. In some cases, it is true that citizens have called for action and the Legislature did not act. But more often it is that consensus or reasonable compromise has been difficult to attain because opposing sides are unwilling to cede their positions.
One path to avoiding policy-by-ballot, though admittedly a difficult one, would be to set higher barriers when it comes to placing questions on the ballot. Another solution would be for the Legislature to more frequently engage stakeholders on all sides, and for those sides to recognize that compromise, not retrenchment, is the goal. This was the process that successfully led to the passage of the 2016 women’s pay equity legislation, breaking a more than 20-year logjam. This process is already in action on some of this year’s ballot questions. The work to compromise may require the Legislature to move out of the driver’s seat while others hammer out that compromise, but when we leave policy to the ballot, the Legislature isn’t even in the car.
To be sure, there will be times when compromise just isn’t possible. In those cases, voters should be asked to decide on broad ideals with the knowledge that specifics need to be determined by experts over a period of time — not in a few minutes via checkbox on a November day. We already have this tool in the form of a nonbinding referendum. To date, it has been used rarely for major policy initiatives, but it may be time to rethink that.
In the meantime, let’s hope for negotiated compromise solutions to some of this year’s complex ballot questions or, voters, get ready to do some reading — $5 billion worth.James E. Rooney is president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.