Healey approves 20 ballot questions for 2016

List includes items on marijuana, Common Core, whales, and charter schools

TWENTY PETITIONS proposing new laws that would, among other things, legalize recreational marijuana, expand the state’s authority to license charter schools, and protect whales from fishing nets, passed their first legal test after Attorney General Maura Healey on Wednesday certified the initiative petitions, clearing a path toward the 2016 ballot.

Healey also certified two proposed amendments to the state constitution that would impose a higher income tax on earnings over a million dollars to help fund education and transportation and another clarifying that no part of the constitution requires public funding of abortion.

The citizen-generated constitutional amendments have a longer road to the ballot than the other petitions, requiring at least a quarter of the Legislature to back the measures in 2016 and again in the 2017-2018 session before they could possibly appear before voters in 2018.

The coalition behind last fall’s successful campaign to mandate paid, earned sick time for most workers across Massachusetts is now pushing a constitutional amendment to tax millionaires an additional 4 percent on earnings above $1 million. Though ballot questions are prohibited from allocating money to specific programs, Healey determined that the language setting aside the millionaires tax revenue for the broad categories of education and transportation passed legal muster.

In her review of the constitutionality of the proposed ballot questions, Healey knocked 10 petitions off the list, essentially taking them out of play for next year’s elections unless her decisions get challenged by proponents in the Supreme Judicial Court.

Petitions that were not certified deal with the proposed legalization of fireworks, an attempt to regulate corporate campaign contributions, the definition of a “public body,” and a planned study of radiation health and safety risks.

Reflecting discontent with their inability to pass bills through the Legislature, groups earlier this summer filed 35 separate petitions proposing 26 new laws and nine constitution amendments. The number of filings this year were the most since 1994 when 42 petitions were filed and seven eventually made it to the ballot.

The next step in the process requires proponents of the individual ballot petitions to collect by late November 65,760 valid signatures in order to refer the petition to the Legislature for consideration. The Secretary of State’s office must make the signature sheets available to petitioners no later than Sept. 16, but some groups said they expected they would available sooner.

“We’ve been given the green light to proceed, and what happens next is up to you!” wrote Agatha Bodwell, the signature drive director for the campaign to force Massachusetts to withdraw from the Common Core curriculum standards.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education issued a statement expressing disappointment in Healey’s decision to certify the Common Core repeal petition, calling it a “legally dubious question” to put before voters.

“This [is] a reckless and irresponsible ballot measure that would turn back the clock on critical improvements that the majority of teachers and principals support.  It would cause mass confusion in our schools, undo the hard work of thousands of Massachusetts educators and put our children far behind their peers in other states,” said Linda Noonan, the executive director of the alliance, in a statement.

Another successful petitioner – The Humane Society of the United States – cheered their clearance of the legal hurdle on the path to the 2016 ballot. The Humane Society is one of the groups behind a proposed ballot question that would outlaw the “extreme confinement” of farm animals. The measure is opposed by some farming groups who say the types of cages targeted by animal rights activists are not used in Massachusetts, and argue that the petition would drive up food prices by restricting the sale of meat and dairy products from other states where the cages might be used.

“We’re heartened to have the opportunity to begin talking with Massachusetts voters about how they can help prevent animal cruelty, promote food safety and aid family farmers by signing petitions to put this measure on next year’s ballot,” said Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director of The Humane Society of the United States.

Other ballot questions progressing forward include multiple proposals by competing groups to legalize recreational marijuana, Secretary of State William Galvin’s proposal to reform the state’s public records laws, petitions dealing with euthanasia of animals in shelters, a measure allowing the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to add another slots parlor in the state, and a worker’s rights petitions that would require fast food restaurants and retail stores to pay an employee one to four hours of extra pay whenever it changes that employee’s work schedule within 14 days of a scheduled work shift.

Four separate questions drafted by two different groups to legalize recreational marijuana were all certified on Wednesday, raising the specter of potentially two ballot questions regarding pot going before voters in 2016.

Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said his group has not reached any agreement with Bay State Repeal, the other group with three different proposals, on combining forces.

“We’re pleased and looking forward to the signature drive and making a compelling case to the people of Massachusetts,” Borghesani said.

A group of charter school, business and education advocates also got the green light to move ahead with a petition to allow the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to authorize up to 12 new public charter schools or existing school expansions each year. While the proposed change would leave existing caps on charter school seats by district in place, the board could license charter schools in excess of the cap in certain districts if it determines the need for choice is great enough.

During an unrelated event at Boston City Hall, Mayor Martin Walsh said he was a charter school supporter and said he had discussed the issue a couple of weeks ago during a meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker.

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
“I would much rather increase the cap through the legislative process and not through the ballot question initiative,” Walsh said, suggesting a bill crafted on Beacon Hill would be a more precise way to make sure cap increases occur in communities that need them.

Antonio Caban contributed reporting to this story.