Our wheezing democracy

Conflicting ballot questions underscore inaction on Beacon Hill

WHO ARE YOU going to turn to make important decisions affecting the state? The sluggish Legislature or schizophrenic, knee-jerk electorate?

Those seem to be the less-than-compelling options at this point in dealing with a set of questions that will have enormous implications for the state’s budget and initiatives we look for it to fund.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to take up proposals to lower the sales tax or raise the state’s minimum wage and mandate paid family leave for employees, so advocates for those issues are laying the groundwork for them to appear on the November ballot. Meanwhile, a coalition of groups backing more spending for education and transportation wants to raise taxes on high-earners to fund those areas. The so-called millionaire tax on earnings above $1 million a year is due to appear on the November ballot — though that could still be upended by the Supreme Judicial Court, which is expected to rule any day on a constitutional challenge to the question filed by business groups.

With a menu of spending questions possibly heading to the ballot, what are voters thinking?

We need to spend more on stuff — using other people’s money.

That seems to be the mixed message of a new WBUR poll that finds strong support for the millionaire tax, which would bring an estimated $2 billion in state coffers, and support for cutting the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent, which could cut about $1 billion a year from revenue going into state coffers.

The millionaire tax had support from 77 percent of likely voters, while 67 percent back the sales tax cut.

Voters’ apparent interest in seeing more money spent on education and transportation would be badly undercut by their similar interest in saving a little bit each time they buy something subject to the state sales tax. It may be perfectly rational from a household-level perspective — people want better schools and roads and want to keep more of their own earnings. It’s not quite as rational a set of decisions in terms of overall state fiscal policy.

Complicated legislation or tax policy, say most thoughtful observers, is best done through the deliberative — and hopefully thoughtful — legislative process. Taking such questions to the ballot is often seen as a move of last resort, and the threat alone of doing so is sometimes enough to prod action-averse lawmakers to do their job.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

There is still hope for that, as lawmakers and advocates for the various questions have been discussing a possible “grand bargain” that would somehow take account of the budgetary push and pull of all the different questions. Whether they can pull that off is anyone’s guess.

If they don’t, get ready for a dizzying season of dueling ballot question battles that try to squeeze complicated budget questions onto bumper stickers.