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Chris Lisinski8/2/23 5:50 PM
Supporters rallied Wednesday on Boston Common for an industry-backed ballot question related to app-based drivers, including speaker Charles Clemons Muhammad (gesturing toward State House). [Sam Doran/SHNS]
AUG. 2, 2023.....Efforts to subject the Legislature to outside scrutiny, reform the role of standardized MCAS tests, allow cities and towns to regulate rent levels, and reshape rights and benefits for on-demand drivers took steps Wednesday toward potentially being decided by voters in 2024.
After months of noncommittal answers and behind-the-scenes whispers, the outer limits of the ballot question universe became clear as the deadline arrived for supporters to file measures they want to bring to the ballot box.
Altogether, 42 ballot questions were filed by the 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday, proposing 38 laws that could be decided at the 2024 ballot and four Constitutional amendments that could be decided in the 2026 election, according to Attorney General Andrea Campbell's office.
Another 12 questions had been filed in late 2022 with a goal of reaching the 2024 or 2026 ballot.
Supporters filed multiple versions of the same question on several topics, including nine versions of a revived app-based driver question and eight versions of a proposed law requiring voter identification. Filing multiple drafts with minor differences is a common strategy campaigns use to keep their options open while they figure out which draft has the best chance of legal and political success.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association followed through on one of two initiatie petitions it had been weighing. Activists with the union joined with educators, parents and recent graduates to file a measure that would uncouple the MCAS exam from graduation requirements, but MTA opted against pursuing a ballot question related to higher education funding and affordability.
MTA officials said the union's board of directors still needs to decide at a meeting Sunday whether to launch a full campaign behind the initiative petition, which would keep the standardized tests in place but no longer require students to pass the exam to graduate.
Their proposal is similar to one filed a few days before the deadline by Shelley Scruggs, a Lexington woman who said she wants to eliminate the graduation requirement on behalf of her 15-year-old son.
Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, filed a ballot question 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.
"This afternoon, acting in my personal capacity as a renter, I filed a petition with 15 residents of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston to preserve the option of a 2024 ballot question relative to lifting the ban on rent control and enabling local tenant protections. More to come!" Connolly, who has a similar but broader bill (H 1304) pending before the Housing Committee, tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
Previous efforts to reverse the ban or revive the policies in a handful of specific communities have failed to gain momentum with legislative leaders.
Other questions filed by Wednesday's deadline would gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to the same as the general minimum wage, limit political spending by "foreign-influenced businesses," and halt the state's gas tax when gasoline prices are above a certain threshold.
One proposed constitutional amendment would once again allow Bay Staters incarcerated on felony offenses to vote in state and federal elections. In 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment disenfranchising incarcerated felons by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.
A pair of measures seek to decriminalize psychedelic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms.
Proponents said the measures, which are backed by the New Approach group that helped secure passage of similar ballot questions in Colorado and Oregon, would give Bay Staters access to new substances that can treat mental health issues.
"A growing body of research from some of the nation's most respected medical research institutions shows that psychedelics hold tremendous promise in treating depression, end-of-life anxiety, and other serious mental health challenges," said Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Franklin King, who was one of the first voters to sign the initiative petition. "Evidence is likewise clear that the current legal scheduling of naturally occurring psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin is neither appropriate nor scientifically based."
The Bay Staters for Natural Medicine group said it supports the version of the two ballot questions that would allow for home cultivation of mushrooms for personal use.
Auditor Diana DiZoglio's transparency fight against the House and Senate Democrats with whom she once served might become a matter for voters to decide.
DiZoglio worked with a group of transparency advocates, current and former elected officials from both parties, and other public figures to file a proposed state law that would explicitly permit the auditor's office to audit the Legislature.
Herself a former representative and senator, DiZoglio has been pushing for months to audit her former employers. Top Democrats have resisted, arguing she does not have that authority and that doing so would violate the "separation of powers" required by the Constitution.
Auditor Diana DiZoglio, pictured at a July 26 press conference announcing her push for litigation against the Legislature, will also support a ballot question aimed at empowering her push to audit the House and Senate. [Chris Lisinski/SHNS]
In an interview, DiZoglio said she is still pursuing other routes to audit the Legislature, including a push to file a lawsuit she formally launched last week. Putting the issue before voters, she said, is "another tool in the toolbelt."
"Taxpayers deserve an audit that is able to be done without resistance from their elected officials. The Legislature has been audited at least 113 times throughout history, demonstrating clear precedent," she said. "We've asked the AG to support our efforts through litigation, as you know. In the meantime, since top legislators seem to be confused about the language of the law, we are asking the people of Massachusetts to help make it crystal clear."
Northwind Strategies founder Doug Rubin, who was a consultant for DiZoglio's campaign, is listed as the ballot question committee chair.
Rubin said original signatories who gave their support to the measure include first-term Republican Rep. Marcus Vaughn, former Democrat Reps. Jonathan Hecht and Cory Atkins, former Republican Rep. Dan Winslow, former Massachusetts Republican Party Chair Jennifer Nassour, former Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, and Act on Mass executive director Erin Leahy.
The law creating the auditor's office grants it the ability to audit "all departments, offices, commissions, institutions and activities of the commonwealth." The House and Senate are neither explicitly listed nor explicitly exempted.
DiZoglio has argued that the Legislature is a "department" under that definition -- an idea not shared by legislative leaders. The ballot question would circumvent debate over interpretation of that word by adding "the general court itself" to the list of covered entities.
Campbell, who like DiZoglio won her first statewide election in November, will now play a role in two different avenues of action the auditor is pursuing. In addition to deciding whether DiZoglio's lawsuit moves forward, Campbell will be tasked with reviewing whether the ballot question the auditor backs passes constitutional muster (a legal decision that does not reflect Campbell's opinion of the proposal's policy merits).
DiZoglio told the News Service that although she supports the ballot question, "it is not official business so no taxpayer resources from my office would be expended."
After years of debate but little action, voters might get not one but two different chances to weigh in on major workplace issues for drivers on platforms like Uber and Lyft.
An industry-backed group working with some drivers filed nine versions of a ballot question that would define app-based drivers as independent contractors under state law while extending them some new benefits, like an earnings floor 20 percent higher than minimum wage.
At the same time, 32BJ SEIU -- which opposes the company-backed question -- and other Uber and Lyft drivers submitted their own measure that would give drivers the ability to unionize, pitching it as a way to counter a "broken dynamic."
It could become a confusing situation for voters if both questions advance all the way to the ballot.
And in another massive wrinkle, Uber and Lyft are staring down litigation from Massachusetts prosecutors alleging that their current practice of classifying drivers as contractors instead of employees violates the state's wage and hour laws to boost profit. Now-Gov. Maura Healey sued the companies in July 2020, and the slow-moving case is expected to go to trial in May 2024, according to an official in the attorney general's office.
The unionization ballot question is a narrower version of legislation that 32BJ SEIU, an influential labor group, continues to push on Beacon Hill.
It would allow drivers for on-demand ride platforms like Uber and Lyft the ability to select a union via a card check process, then collectively bargain over topics such as minimum wages, benefits and working conditions.
Roxana Rivera, the union's head, said Massachusetts would become the first state in the nation to give app-based drivers not covered by the National Labor Relations Act the ability to organize.
Rivera said drivers have dealt with shrinking pay for years, often face "unfair deactivations without due process" and bear significant vehicle upkeep costs themselves.
"We believe that the only way in which to lift these jobs out of poverty and to basically put some power back into the workers' hands is that they actually have the right to collective bargaining, just as many workers do in Massachusetts," she said in an interview.
32BJ SEIU still views the broader legislation (H 1099 / S 666) pending before the Financial Services Committee as the best option but wanted to "keep every tool available," Rivera said.
The independent contractor measure from the Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers coalition reflects a second pass at the question after the Supreme Judicial Court in 2022 tossed an earlier version because it improperly combined multiple topics.
Organizers say they filed nine options for a new version to address the commingling issues that justices saw last year.
"We heard loud and clear that the SJC had concerns about relatedness, and we know that trial lawyers and labor will once again try to use legal loopholes to deny voters the chance to weigh in on this important issue," Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the ballot campaign, said in a statement. "We have provided the Attorney General's office with a number of options for certification that should address these concerns and ensure that voters have an opportunity to make their voices heard."
The companies and drivers who agree argue that workers on the platforms prefer independent contractor status and the flexibility it offers to being dubbed official employees.
At a Boston Common event kicking off the company-backed ballot question campaign redux, attendees held signs reading "drivers want to remain independent" and "flexibility and benefits."
"I have no interest in other employment-based transportation jobs because they will mean I couldn't take my children to school or further my education," said Pierre-Louis, a Lyft driver who is studying criminal justice. "The labor[-supported] bills will only put me further away from my goals."
During the 2021-2022 cycle, four gig economy giants -- Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart -- together contributed $43.5 million to the ballot question committee, according to state campaign finance records. Some of that money consisted of in-kind donations labeled "pro-rated staff support time and expenses" from the companies, and about $2.4 million from Instacart is labeled a "loan repayment."
The new version of the committee has not yet reported any political fundraising or spending.
Campaigns that want to put a proposed new law before voters in 2024 or a proposed constitutional amendment in 2026 needed to file their measures by the end of the day Wednesday. But not every question submitted will make it to the ballot, and recent history shows only a few typically survive every cycle.
Campbell's office will now review each measure and either certify, which keeps a proposal moving forward in the process, or decline to certify, which ends its progress. Those decisions are not based on how Campbell herself or her deputies feel about the merits of the policies, but instead on whether the questions comply with a set of requirements in the state Constitution governing initiative petitions.
Questions must be "in proper form for submission to the people," 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 tackle certain topics, like religion, judges, specific state appropriations and portions of the state's Declaration of Rights.
In the last cycle, for example, Healey's office declined to certify a proposal to ban smoking in multi-family housing because it was not properly written as a piece of legislation, a measure that would criminalize using someone's social media posts to get them fired because it violated freedom of speech rights, and a question seeking a range of health care industry financial changes because it contained too many disparate pieces "to be considered a 'unified' statement of public policy."
Campbell's certification decisions are due by Sept. 6. Campaigns who get the green light to continue need to collect 74,574 signatures -- 3 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates for governor, excluding blanks, in the most recent election -- in a bit less than three months. Signatures must be filed with local officials by Nov. 22 and then the secretary of state's office by Dec. 6.
Ballot questions with enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024, where lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute or decline to take action. If lawmakers 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.
[Alison Kuznitz and Sophie Hauck contributed reporting.]
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Mass. Lottery Posts Record Profits
Gains Recorded Across Spectrum of Games
Colin A. Young 7/25/23 1:13 PM
JULY 25, 2023.... In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Massachusetts Lottery brought in more revenue than ever before, paid out more in prizes than any previous year, and expects to return a record high profit of $1.176 billion for the state to dole out to all 351 communities as local aid, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and the Lottery Commission announced Tuesday.
Fiscal year 2023 saw the Lottery haul in $6.131 billion in sales revenue, surpassing the $6 billion mark for the first time in the Lottery's 51-year existence and topping the previous record of $5.863 billion set in fiscal 2022 by about $268 million. Contributing to that pile were record-high scratch ticket sales ($4.043 billion) and record-high Keno sales ($1.226 billion).
After accounting for an estimated $4.483 billion in prizes, which bested the previous high of $4.309 billion paid out in fiscal 2022, paying a record high $350 million in commissions and bonuses to retailers, and covering administrative costs that equaled about 2 percent of revenue, the Lottery expects to be left with the record $1.176 billion in net profit. That's enough to overtake the previous record of $1.112 billion set in fiscal 2021.
It is also enough to beat the projected $1 billion in net profit that Goldberg and Lottery officials told state lawmakers they could expect the Lottery to generate for local aid in fiscal 2023. Based on that lower projection, the fiscal 2023 budget included $1.231 billion in unrestricted general government aid. The Lottery's higher actual total could be a boon for cities and towns, which are waiting for state lawmakers to finish work and release funds associated with an annual road and bridge maintenance bill, and to finalize other key local aid accounts in the fiscal 2024 state budget.
"I am proud of the performance of our team and want to thank our retail partners and our customers as we face mounting challenges in the marketplace," Goldberg said. "Because of everyone's efforts, we are able to meet our mission of providing critical local aid to all 351 communities in the state."
With residents showing a steady willingness to shell out their money for a chance to win big, Goldberg has long supported making the Lottery's offerings available online and this year the Massachusetts House added online Lottery authorization to its fiscal 2024 budget. The Senate rejected the idea, which House officials estimate will produce $200 million in new revenue, and the measure is tied up in prolonged and private budget negotiations.
The fiscal 2023 numbers will still need to be audited, but Lottery Executive Director Mark William Bracken said he does not expect them to change substantially by the time the audit is completed in September.
Sales of scratch tickets, which generally account for 65 to 70 percent of all Lottery sales, totaled a record $4.043 billion, up 3 percent over the previous year. Bracken said the Lottery's February launch of a $50 scratch ticket bolstered instant ticket sales as the "Billion Dollar Extravaganza" ticket accounted for more than half a billion dollars in sales.
The multi-state draw games also helped push the Mass. Lottery into record-setting territory last fiscal year. With two jackpots that rose above $1 billion, Mega Millions sales of $159.5 million were 116 percent ahead of fiscal 2022 and $169.7 million in sales for Powerball, which had its first-ever $2 billion jackpot in November, was up 31 percent, the Lottery said.
Lottery players won 145 prizes worth $1 million or more in fiscal year 2023, including Mega Millions jackpots of $33 million and $31 million.
The Lottery on Tuesday also provided an update on the usage of its mobile ticket-cashing app, which launched in September 2021 to allow players to claim prizes worth between $601 and $5,000 remotely. Through the end of fiscal year 2023, the Lottery said, players had claimed 66,543 prizes totaling more than $87 million through the app. By not having to go to a Lottery claim center to collect their winnings, players saved more than $500,000 in gasoline costs and facilitated a 2.5 million pound reduction in carbon emissions, the Lottery said.
Since selling its first ticket in 1972, the Mass. Lottery has generated more than $149 billion in revenue, paid out more than $105 billion in prizes, returned more than $32 billion in net profit to be used as unrestricted local aid, and paid more than $8.5 billion in commissions and bonuses to its network of retailers across the state.
Sam Drysdale6/28/23 4:42 PM
Bills before the Legislature would expand the state's beverage container recovery law to add 10 cent deposits to sports drinks, water bottles and other drinks that come in plastic bottles or cans. [SHNS File]
JUNE 28, 2023.....Forty years after the state added a five-cent deposit on some plastic bottles in order to encourage recycling, climate advocates say it's "the right moment" to expand state's bottle redemption law.
Proposals before the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy would increase the bottle deposit from its current five cents to 10 cents and add more types of beverage containers to the program, putting a deposit on water bottles, vitamin drinks, nips and bottles for other drinks that weren't contemplated when the initial law was adopted in 1982.
Efforts to update this bill have failed in the Legislature for years, and voters in 2014 shot down a ballot question to tack the five-cent bottle deposit onto drinks besides beer and soda.
Without success in expanding the deposit, advocates told lawmakers at two Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy hearings Wednesday (as House and Senate members continue to hold separate hearings amidst a feud between the committee's co-chairs) that Massachusetts is falling behind.
The state has the lowest rate of people returning empty bottles and cans among the 10 states with bottle redemption laws, according to a report from the Container Recycling Institute that came out last year.
Only about 38 percent of plastic bottles are returned to grocery stores or redemption centers in Massachusetts, and only 40 percent of beverage containers are covered by a deposit, the report found. The nickel deposit returned to customers if they return the empty bottles under the 1982 law only applies to carbonated soft drinks, beer, malt beverages and sparkling water.
"In Oregon, they raised their redemption -- their deposit value from five to 10 cents. Within three years, the redemption rate jumped by, I think it was 64 percent up to 86 percent. And today, they're at almost 89 percent," said Mike Noel, public affairs director at recycling company TOMRA. "The system has been neglected in Massachusetts for 40 years."
In addition to doubling the deposit to 10 cents, the bills before the Legislature would expand the beverages subject to the deposit to include plastic water bottles, iced tea containers, nips and some other beverages. Two versions of an expanded bottle bill filed by Reps. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Cynthia Creem (H 3690 / S 2104) and Rep. Michelle Ciccolo (H 3676) have slightly different definitions of which beverages would be included, but both exempt dairy, medicine and formula bottles.
In Ciccolo's bill, the deposit would be initially raised to 10 cents, and increased every three years to match inflation if the state's redemption target is not being met.
Both versions of the bill would also require all retail stores to accept the returned bottles, except for stores that are less than 2,000 square feet.
They would also look into increasing the fee the state pays redemption centers and supermarkets to handle bottle and can returns.
"The handling fee for retailers has not been increased since the beginning of the bottle bill. And something that we have been asking for consistently is to increase the retail handling fee, so that we incentivize retailers to be able to participate, and it not being a financial burden upon them," said Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel and government affairs lead at the Massachusetts Package Stores Association.
Decker and Creem's bill would require that the state review the deposit and handling fee every three years, and take the number of redemption locations into account for the fees. In Ciccolo's bill, the state would review the handling fee every two years. In her bill, if there is less than one return location for redemption for every 3,000 people in the state or in a so-called environmental justice community, the handling fee would go up by 1 cent.
The handling fee is currently 3.25 cents for redemption centers and 2.25 cents for retailers.
Ben Hacker, an employee at the Beverly Redemption Center, said the number of these centers in Massachusetts has dropped off, from over 100 to 41.
"The handling fee for bottles and cans that redemption centers are paid ... has remained stagnant, while the costs of labor, trucking, fuel and every other thing that redemption centers have to do is constantly increasing," Hacker said. "Maine redemption centers were going out of business, so they just passed emergency legislation about eight weeks ago that bumped the handling fee in Maine from four and a half cents to five and a half cents immediately ... They deem that as an emergency because they know that their redemption centers are a necessary part of their recycling infrastructure."
Within the nearly four hours of testimony given on the bottle redemption proposals between two committee hearings on Wednesday, opponents also shared their perspectives.
Increasing the deposit and expanding the types of bottles that it applies to will increase recycling costs for consumers, while not guaranteeing increased recycling rates, said Michelle Blanchard, associate general counsel with Casella Waste Systems, Inc.
"Residents will still need to pay for curbside collection or drop off recycling services, as the majority of the recycling stream is not made up of beverage containers," she said. "The cost of handling these materials differently will also increase the cost to residents in another way, through deposit fees and hidden fees relayed through the higher cost of groceries, when producers pass along their handling costs to consumers."
The argument is similar to points opponents have made in the past, such as during the 2014 debate over a bottle law expansion ballot question. Voters rejected the proposed law 73.5 percent to 26.5 percent in 2014. Opponents ran a campaign that the deposit was an outdated idea, and touted the benefits of curbside recycling.
The beverage industry poured more than $8 million into the campaign to defeat the plan at the time. Supermarket chains also weighed in leading up to the election, posting signs urging shoppers to vote no on "forced deposits."
Steve Boksanski, lobbyist with the Massachusetts Beverage Association, said Wednesday that the group opposes expanding the bottle bill because the current law is "not performing well."
"We're at 38 percent redemption. Now, would you invest your money or your pension fund in an operation that's at a 30 percent efficiency rate? I don't think so," he said. "So let's think about other ways to attack this problem."
Supporters of the bills who testified after Boksanski pushed back on this idea -- saying that the 38 percent redemption rate would increase if the bills before the committee were passed into law.
Alison Kuznitz5/15/23 5:21 PM
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 15, 2023.....Legislation that would establish a new class of alcohol licenses for convenience stores, supermarkets and other businesses may lead to another statewide ballot question, an opponent of the proposal testified Monday.
Cumberland Farms and Market Basket, for example, could be eligible for an unlimited number of so-called food store licenses for wine and malt beverages under the Rep. Daniel Cahill bill (H 253) -- unlike package stores and other retailers subject to stricter alcohol license caps under existing state law, warned Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel at the Massachusetts Package Stores Association.
"H 253 is a blueprint for a ballot question. Here we go again," Mellion told members of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Monday afternoon.
Package stores can have only nine licenses, but Cumberland Farms could theoretically control 206 licenses at all of its Massachusetts locations, he said.
"I don't think that's essentially fair," said Mellion, who helped write Question 3, which voters defeated last November. It would have gradually increased the number of total alcohol licenses that retailers could own or control from nine to 18, while also decreasing the limit on "all-alcohol" licenses.
About 45 percent of voters supported Question 3, with 55 percent voting to reject it.
Local licensing authorities would decide how many food store licenses are issued, under Cahill's bill. Nearby retailers that face heightened competition from businesses with food stores licenses would be eligible for small business support grants, according to the bill, which was sent to study last session.
Matthew Durand, senior counsel at Cumberland Farms, said the legislation reflects changing customer demands and can provide a financial lifeline for small food retailers operating on "razor-thin margins." Cumberland Farms had pushed for a ballot question to remove the state's license cap but then dropped its plan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It allows us to evolve and remain competitive by selling the beer and wine that our customers clearly want to buy from us, and that they can often purchase from competitors already," Durand testified. "We have to keep adapting to the future, as we should have to in a competitive market."
The market won't be flooded with new licenses, Durand said, as he highlighted guardrails in the bill that would slowly ramp up the number of available food store licenses in relation to existing licenses for package stores.
Wine and malt beverage displays could not exceed 35 percent of selling area space at businesses with food stores licenses. The bill also requires licensees to adopt an age verification and employee training policy to ensure alcohol isn't sold to minors.
Durand, responding to a question from Sen. Walter Timilty, couldn't immediately pinpoint the economic impact of creating the new licenses.
"It would be a very case-by-case assessment," Durand said, signaling he'll follow up with more information. "But it would be important. It's a traffic driver for people who want to pick up a loaf of bread and a six-pack, or some burgers and a bottle of wine."
The bill is "controversial" -- and this category of legislation is a "minefield," said Peter Brennan, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association. But Brennan argued it's also "commonsense legislation" that will allow stores to diversify their product offerings and tackle the scarcity of liquor licenses in Massachusetts.
"We're not trying to compete with liquor stores with this new license. People go to a convenience store for certain products; we aim to satisfy every need the customer has at that moment," said Brennan. He noted people who are hosting parties will still go to their neighborhood package stores -- not to convenience stores -- for "massive" quantities of beer and wine, among other spirits.
Yet the bill could spark monopoly-like conditions, Mellion also testified. Food store licensees could garner enough buying power to coerce wholesalers into giving them cheaper prices, he said.
"It literally will change the dynamics in the state, turning us into a chainstore-state," Mellion told the News Service.
Massachusetts Package Stores Association, Inc.
30 Lyman St., Suite 2 / Westborough, MA 01581
Phone: (508) 366-1100 / Fax: (508) 366-1104