End to MCAS petition certified among possible ballot questions

  • Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell’s office on Wednesday certified almost all of the 42 potential ballot questions for 2024. file photo

State House News Service
Published: 9/6/2023 7:44:22 PM

BOSTON — The road to the November 2024 ballot continues for the most closely watched initiative petitions, dealing with the role of the MCAS test as a graduation requirement, the rights and benefits for drivers on app-based platforms, rent control, voter identification and the auditor’s ability to audit the state Legislature.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office said Wednesday it had certified almost all of the 42 potential ballot questions (proposing 38 laws that could be decided at the 2024 ballot and four constitutional amendments that could be decided in the 2026 election) that had been filed by the August deadline. Thirty-four proposals (in some cases representing multiple proposed versions of a potential question) were certified, seven were not certified and one was withdrawn by its sponsor, according to Campbell’s office.

Cleared to continue moving toward next year’s ballot were a handful of versions of a revived question to reshape rights and benefits for on-demand drivers on app-based platforms and of a proposed law requiring voter identification. Petitioners often file multiple versions of a question for review in hopes of getting at least one certified by the attorney general’s office.

Two potential questions that would remove the MCAS exam as a high school graduation requirement were also given the green light Wednesday, as were measures that would gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to the same as the general minimum wage, decriminalize psychedelic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, and halt the state’s gas tax when gasoline prices are above a certain threshold.

Voters next year could get two different chances to weigh in on major and long-debated workplace issues for drivers on platforms like Uber and Lyft.

An industry-backed group working with some drivers filed nine versions of a question that would define app-based drivers as independent contractors under state law while extending them some new benefits, including an earnings floor 20% higher than minimum wage. All nine versions of the possible question were certified Wednesday.

The Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers coalition’s measure marks its second pass at the question — the Supreme Judicial Court in 2022 discarded an earlier version because it improperly combined multiple topics. Before it was tossed, the question was shaping up to be one of the more expensive fights on the ballot. Four gig economy giants — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart — together contributed $43.5 million to the ballot question committee during the 2021-22 cycle, according to state campaign finance records.

Also certified Wednesday was a measure submitted by 32BJ SEIU — which opposes the company-backed question — and other Uber and Lyft drivers that would give drivers the ability to unionize. Supporters have pitched it as a way to counter a “broken dynamic.”

The attorney general’s office also certified a question filed by Rep. Mike Connolly 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.

Campbell’s office is already entangled in Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s attempts to audit the Legislature, and on Wednesday her office certified a proposed question that would establish a state law explicitly permitting the auditor’s office to audit the Legislature.

DiZoglio has been pushing for months to audit the House and Senate, both of which she was once a member of. Top Democrats have resisted, arguing she does not have the authority and that doing so would violate the “separation of powers” required by the constitution. In late July, DiZoglio appealed to Campbell for the attorney general’s support in a move toward litigation.

The attorney general’s office did not certify questions that would limit political spending by “foreign-influenced businesses,” establish ranked-choice voting through a “Non-Partisan Top Five Election System,” change voter registration laws, and affirm a “Constitutional Birthright to be a Person.”

The decisions are based on whether the questions comply with a set of requirements in the state Constitution governing initiative petitions. Campbell’s office said its certification decisions “strictly reflect the AGO’s constitutional role in the Article 48 process. Certification does not represent, and does not in any way reflect, support or opposition to the policies proposed by the petitions.”

Proposed ballot questions have to be “in proper form for submission to the people,” can only 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 touch certain topics, like religion, judges, specific state appropriations and portions of the state’s Declaration of Rights.

One question that Campbell’s office declined to certify, a proposal to change the way candidates for certain elected offices get on the general election ballot by replacing party primaries with a “top-five preliminary” and implementing “instant runoff using ranked-choice voting” in general elections, was struck down in part because it was determined to be “substantially the same” as a 2020 ranked choice voting ballot question defeated by voters.

“[H]ere the measure would impermissibly force the voters to reconsider the same question — whether they want to create a system of ranked-choice voting —  that they already rejected at one of the two preceding biennial state elections,” Anne Sterman, deputy chief of the attorney general’s government bureau, wrote in the declination letter.

Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Fiscal Alliance Foundation, said his organization “was happy to play a significant part in ensuring the Attorney General’s office came to the correct decision” that the ranked-choice voting question should not be certified.

“The proponents of ranked-choice voting were trying to circumvent the state constitution in order to spam voters with another ballot question on ranked choice voting, even though voters soundly rejected this policy in 2020. The state constitution protects voters from situations just like this,” he said.

The campaigns that did get the green light Wednesday will now need to collect 74,574 signatures — 3 percent of the total votes cast for candidates for governor, excluding blanks, in the most recent election — and file them with local officials by Nov. 22, and then with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6.

Ballot questions with enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024. Lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute or decline to take action. If legislators 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.

State House News reporter Alison Kuznitz contributed to this report.
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