Citizen legislators

Massachusetts lawmakers are spending less time than ever writing and debating new laws. And, in response, citizens and interest groups in Massachusetts are increasingly turning to the ballot to make policy — either as a direct appeal to voters, or as a cudgel for beating action out of a slow-moving Legislature.

The field of likely 2014 ballot questions shrunk last week, but even after contracting, state voters will be asked to make meaty policy decisions on a broad range of issues in November. The ballot will likely include questions that would repeal casino gaming, create near-universal paid sick time for workers, extend bottle deposits to water and sports drinks, and repeal the gas tax’s inflation index. If those measures went through the State House, they’d add up to a reasonably productive legislative session. On the ballot, they add up to a burst of policymaking by direct democracy that hasn’t been seen since the early 1980s.

Boston magazine’s David Bernstein notes that two other meaty policy questions that were ticketed for November’s ballot — a minimum wage hike and a law setting staffing levels for nurses — have been withdrawn, after the prospect of putting the matters to voters goaded lawmakers into taking action on them last week.

 

“We are clearly in a new Golden Age of Law-Making By Threat of Popular Vote,” Bernstein writes. “I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing.” He notes that the threat of a ballot question led to the state’s landmark 2006 health care law, and the 2010 charter school cap increase; lawmakers ignored a group threatening to legalize medical marijuana two years ago, and wound up with a flawed medical marijuana law that pulled in as many votes in 2012 as President Obama did.

A couple patterns have emerged from ballot battles in recent years.

Ballot questions are increasingly being used to gain leverage in policy areas where moneyed advocates have Beacon Hill sewn up. The 2010 charter cap fight and the Legislature’s reluctant 2012 embrace of teacher testing both used the threat of a statewide vote to overcome union opposition; this year’s bottle bill question landed on the ballot after the bill was buried in committee two years ago, even after advocates claimed to have a majority of supporters in the House and Senate.

The ballot is also being used to make an end-run around a Legislature in which certain subjects are off limits. The rapid liberalization of the state’s marijuana laws — from decriminalization in 2008, to the 2012 medical marijuana law, to the impending 2016 ballot question fully legalizing the drug — has been completely voter-driven.

And for all the years of debate and lobbying on Beacon Hill around casinos, the question of whether or not to legalize gambling was always much more about which way Mr. Speaker was voting, than it was about real policy. Casinos have been kicking around Beacon Hill since 2007, but it’s taken a November ballot question to launch a real debate about whether or not the state actually wants, or needs, them.

–PAUL MCMORROW

BEACON HILL

Legislators are expected to give final approval today to a 2015 state budget that boosts funding for opiate addiction services and the troubled Department of Children and Families. The $36.5 billion budget, which also raises local spending, does not raise taxes, but does rely on a combination of one-time revenues, reserve account funds, and anticipated casino revenue that could never materialize if voters repeal the state gambling law in November. The proposed budget scraps changes to the bottle deposit law and counts on casino licensing fees and slot parlor revenue, State House News reports.

A Probation official describes the pressure to hire the wife of Rep. Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, CommonWealth reports. Petrolati’s legal bills recently eclipsed the $200,000 mark.

The Sun Chronicle highlights the erosion of local aid.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Interim Brockton Police Chief Robert Hayden, hospitalized after being hit while riding his bike in Hingham last week, underwent emergency surgery over the weekend for internal bleeding.

CASINOS

The Eagle-Tribune reports the conventional wisdom: that casino interests will spend big on the upcoming referendum question to repeal the state’s gaming law.

The state gaming commission is holding Boston to a looming arbitration deadline, even as the city asks gaming regulators to throw the brakes on casino licensing until after November’s referendum.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

President Obama is expected to nominate today a former chief executive of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble to head the Department of Veterans of Affairs, which has been beset with serious management problems.

The Golden Gate Bridge is going to be outfitted with suicide nets at a cost of $76 million, Governing reports.

ELECTIONS

The three independents running for governor practice very different styles of politics, CommonWealth reports.

Elizabeth Warren is hitting the campaign trail on behalf of local Democratic candidates in the South, a road show that should provide a revealing glimpse at whether her brand of fiery economic populism, which has so enthralled liberals, will sell with working class Southern whites. Kimberly Atkins says Hillary Clinton badly needs a dose of Warren’s common touch.

Forget the pickup truck: Rep. Brian Mannal, a Centerville Democrat, is campaigning for re-election on a Freego.

The Atlantic argues that conservative talking heads like Ann Coulter hate World Cup soccer because the Americans who watch soccer are, demographically, the same people who got President Obama reelected.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Gas prices normally peak around Memorial Day and drop during June but so far this year they haven’t.

The resurgent economy has set off a wave of home building in Massachusetts, but the conservation group Mass Audubon is warning in a new report that the majority of the construction has involved low-density development on former forest land.

Facebook is taking flak for tweaking the news feeds of many of its users to see how negative and positive content affects them, Forbes reports.

Home equity borrowing is back, but lenders say they have learned their lessons from the frenzy of lending that crashed the economy the last time this movie played.

The quasi-public agency overseeing the mixed-use project at the former naval air base in South Weymouth and a town councilor want the developer to tear down or seal up the two dozen Navy buildings remaining on the base because they are safety hazards.

Swiss bank accounts are old news; the mega-rich are now hiding their assets in New York real estate.

HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts General Hospital will begin routine screening this fall of all patients for signs of drug or alcohol addiction problems.

TRANSPORTATION

A new bus route launches in Lawrence. It takes residents to the business district and around the city, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Keolis takes over management of the MBTA’s commuter rail system tomorrow — and the international transportation company and T leaders are hoping no one notices.

MBTA fares go up Tuesday, WBUR reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Federal regulators have delayed a scheduled energy rate auction because of the uncertainty over the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset that the owner is planning on shutting down in 2017.

Brockton officials are lobbying the EPA for approval to expand its sewage treatment capacity in order to spur more development and sell more services to nearby towns.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The Metrowest sees jump in gun permits over the last year.

MEDIA

The Boston Globe Foundation donates a full-page ad to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh so he can thank the Boston Public Schools for a good year, CommonWealth reports.