On Tuesday, registered voters in Massachusetts will hit the polls to not only vote for new state leaders, but also to decide on politicized issues in the Commonwealth.
The 2014 ballot questions address changes to the gas tax, updates to the Bottle Bill, a repeal of the casino law and earned sick time for employees. The results of the questions will become law after the votes are tallied, said Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin.
“If you’ve been watching any television, you’ve seen a lot of ads on these subjects,” McNiff said. “These are all laws that have considerable economic impact. They’re also, to a greater or lesser degree, quite controversial, so what the people do Tuesday will have an effect on a number of areas.”
The decision to include the four questions began as early as December 2013, when Massachusetts residents signed petitions calling for a change in law. For the questions to be accepted on the ballot, the petition must contain certified signatures equal to at least 3 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates for governor at the last state election, which was 68,911 votes.
The attorney general then determines whether the petition is an acceptable subject and forwards them to Galvin’s office. From there, if approved, the petitions are forwarded to the Massachusetts Legislature, which decides further whether to approve the petition, reject it or take no action. If no action is taken on the measures, petitioners must collect an additional 11,485 signatures and submit them for certification. Once the signatures are filed with Galvin’s office, the question can appear on the ballot, McNiff said.
“These four questions that are on the ballot now are the four survivors of that process if you will,” he said, “and let’s hope people vote on them next week.”
Polls open for the general election at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
The gas tax law, implemented in September 2013, adjusts taxes on gas annually according to inflation. Voting “Yes” for gas tax indexing would eliminate the annual inflation-based tax change. A “No” vote would make no change.
Kristina Egan, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, is a proponent of the gas tax law, and said this gas tax is needed to fund public transportation projects in the Commonwealth.
“Our public transportation is old and falling apart, and the main source of funding for our transportation is the gas tax,” she said. “So it’s really important that the people who are using their cars and using public transportation help pay to maintain the system that we have.”
Egan said the tax needs to be tied to inflation not only because it is essential toward funding public transportation, but also because inflation decreases the purchasing power of the gas tax as costs rise.
“Tying gas tax to inflation will cost the average driver $5 a year,” she said. “But if we don’t tie gas tax to inflation, we will lose $1 billion for transportation repairs. And that gas tax is to help fund new Red Line and Orange Line cars, the Green Line extension to Somerville, South Station expansion and other repairs to the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] system.”
Not only is the gas tax economically beneficial and essential to the maintenance of the Commonwealth’s transportation system, but it also contributes to the reduction of climate change by encouraging Massachusetts residents to use alternative, more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, Egan said.
“The gas tax, by funding our transportation system, supports our economy and also helps build a transportation system that includes walking and biking, buses and trains,” she said. “That helps reduce climate change. The gas tax is really important, both for providing economic opportunity to our low-income residents, supporting economic growth and fighting climate change.”
Bill Vernon, director of National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts, said the costs overcome the benefits, and indexing the gas tax would distort the previously established tax.
If this process of indexing the gas tax based on inflation had been implemented when the gas tax was last increased, it would be 50 percent higher than it is now, an increase of 36 cents per gallon, Vernon said. The gas tax will also have the strongest impact on small businesses that need fuel for the work they do.
“Representing small businesses, the gas tax disproportionately paid by small business owners who oftentimes have two or three pick up trucks to get their equipment to the job, to get themselves and their coworkers to the job and then to operate the equipment at the job,” he said. “A lot of small businesses use a large amount of gasoline fuel, and that’s why it’s a disproportionate impact on small businesses.”
Vernon said the legislature should vote to increase taxes, instead of increasing the gas tax automatically.
The Bottle Bill, first implemented in the 1980s, requires a deposit on alcoholic and carbonated drinks. The ballot question advocates for the adjustment of the current bill to include a deposit for containers of non-alcoholic and carbonated drinks.
The proposed petition would also require that the deposit amount for containers be adjusted every five years to reflect changes to the Consumer Price Index.
Ben Martin-McDonough, spokesman for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said the initiative would significantly increase the practice of recycling.
At this time, 80 percent of all items that have a deposit on them, including beer bottles, cans and sodas, can be redeemed at a store or redemption center or they can be recycled, but all other beverage containers not recognized as redeemable end up as trash or litter, Martin-McDonough said.
“The original bottle bill came about in the 1980s under the response to large amounts of litter and the lack of recycling,” he said. “It put a 5-cent deposit on soda and beer cans and bottles, and the results of that were that by the deposit, those items started to be recycled at a very high rate.”
People did not drink as many sports drinks, energy drinks, iced tea and bottles of water when the first bill was implemented in the 1980s, Martin-McDonough said. With the bill, a massive increase in recycling would be seen.
“We would see a reduction in litter. We wouldn’t see water bottles and energy drinks littered on the side of the roads in the state,” he said. “And we wouldn’t see them on ball fields, and they wouldn’t be in our waterways and lakes. All those things would be great, but also we would see that cities and towns across the state would be getting money because currently, they have to pay $7 million a year to pick up litter.”
Nicole Giambusso, spokeswoman for No on Question 2: Stop Forced Deposits, said the approval of the update to the Bottle Bill would add $68 million a year to gross-rate costs, while increasing recycling by one-eighth of a percent.
“We just need to keep in mind the cost and the fact that the forced deposit system was created in 1982,” Giambusso said. “It was a very different time, and since then, we’ve really built a strong recycling infrastructure. Over 90 percent of households in Massachusetts have access to either curbside recycling or some type of community recycling program. Those programs target all recyclables from top to bottom, not just bottles and cans.”
There are more than 3,000 members of No on Question 2: Stop Forced Deposits who agree that the costs of the Bottle Bill outweigh the benefits, Giambusso said, and the more people learn about it, the less they like it because several other systems, such as curbside recycling, already address the issue.
Giambusso said these new container deposit machines would require additional costs and investments and take up space, ultimately burdening the grocers.
“The current machines are not going to redeem all the cans that Question 2 would cover, so it would mean a lot of space, a lot of additional investments for these grocers,” she said. “And those are costs that will trickle back to consumers. So it’s going to cost us more money at the checkout counter, and that’s for no significant recycling benefit.”
If passed, the proposed law would be implemented April 22, 2015.
Question 3 proposes a law prohibiting the Massachusetts Gaming Commission from licensing any gaming establishment with slot machines or table games, and requiring that all casino and slot gaming licenses already issued be discontinued. The proposed law would also prohibit gambling on live greyhound races.
Voting “Yes” on this ballot question would mean a vote to repeal the current law allowing casinos to be built, creating a gambling-free state. A majority “No” vote would allow the casinos to continue as planned.
Stephen Eisele, spokesman for Yes on 3, said casinos would take away from local communities and small businesses throughout the Commonwealth.
Crime has been shown to increase in a 50-mile radius of the casino, which, in a state as small as Massachusetts, encompasses 50 percent of the Commonwealth’s population, Eisele said.
People should be concerned about the effects these casinos would have on the Commonwealth, such as increases in traffic, domestic violence and drunk driving, he said.
“[This] is something that will really affect everyone in the Commonwealth,” Eisele said. “People will think it doesn’t have an impact on them, but looking at the impact on the local economies around the casino sites, it’s hard to determine where that line is. The other side talks about jobs, but the money has to come from somewhere, and it will take away from other businesses. It will suck up a lot of income at the expense of local communities from other states.”
The Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs, which opposes the repeal of the casino bill, supports the jobs and revenue that would be generated by the casinos, according to the organization’s website.
“Our goal is to engage Massachusetts voters in a dialogue on this subject and to make clear this law will create thousands of jobs and allow the state to reap hundreds of millions in revenues, much of it now flowing to other states,” the website states.
More than 15,000 jobs would be created if the casino law is not repealed, according to the site, and $400 million in annual income would be generated for the Commonwealth.
The Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs did not respond to comment.
Three casinos have been approved in the Commonwealth: one in Springfield, one in Everett and one in southeastern Massachusetts.
Question 4 addresses the issue of earned sick time for employees in Massachusetts.
Currently, the Commonwealth has no regulations in place regarding paid sick days at work, and days off are seen as a personal discussion between employer and employee to be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
Those working for larger employers, meaning those with 11 or more employees, would be able to earn and use up to 40 hours of paid sick time in a calendar year, and employees working for smaller businesses or employees, could earn up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time, according to the proposed law.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts is against the creation of the sick day laws, said Jon Hurst, the organization’s president.
“One size does not fit all. It should be between employer and employee, not state-wide,” he said. “We view this as a self-centered objective that the state are trying to sneak through while hammering small business and cheating taxpayers. Really big and small businesses are different, and a part-time working teenager is different from a full-time working adult.”
Hurst emphasized that this bill could potentially reduce jobs for high school students by 50 percent.
Steve Crawford, spokesman for Yes on 4, said the lack of government regulation behind sick days is a social and economic downfall for the Commonwealth.
“The bill will allow people who need to take their elderly mother to the doctor to take a few hours and make sure they are cared for properly,” he said. “It will allow parents to earn time to pick up their sick children from school to make sure they are watched during the day.”
Not providing sick time for workers in need would cost approximately $200 million every year to cover additional expenses, Crawford said. Therefore, by approving sick days for the Commonwealth, “there will be a savings for everyone.”
“We all know someone who doesn’t get sick time at work, could be sister, or mother or neighbor,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect our values, and it is costing our economy millions of dollars in lost wages.”
If passed, Question 4’s proposed law would take effect July 1, 2015.
Stephanie Pagones contributed to the reporting of this article.