By Christian M. Wade
BOSTON — Besides electing a new president, Massachusetts voters will decide ballot questions Nov. 8 that will determine whether to allow a new slots parlor, legalize marijuana, expand charter schools, and ban keeping farm animals in cage confinement.
Among the most controversial is a question that would legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana.
Voters already have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana and approved its medical use, but the proposal to regulate and tax sales of legal pot is drawing fierce opposition from Gov. Charlie Baker and law enforcement officials.
Despite their resistance, a poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group showed 55 percent of voters support the question, with 40 percent opposed.
Another controversial question proposes expanding taxpayer-funded charter schools, an issue that has been a flashpoint between Baker and the state's largest teachers union. The governor supports expanding charters, while the Massachusetts Teachers Association is opposed.
The same MassINC poll, released Wednesday, found 52 percent of voters oppose expanding charter schools, while 41 percent support the measure.
Another question proposes a ban on the use of cage confinement for farm animals. That question pits the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights groups against a coalition of farming, retail and anti-poverty groups. Surveys indicate overwhelming support for the ban among voters.
A fourth question would give the state Gaming Commission authority to approve another slots parlor.
Voters will begin deciding the questions Monday, when early voting gets underway.
Advocates on either side of the questions have poured nearly $30 million into efforts to sway voters, with the charter school question drawing the most funds, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Political observers say a big turnout among the state's nearly 4.3 million registered voters would foreshadow success for some of the initiatives.
"Especially for deep blue Massachusetts, this is a year for the liberal side to win on ballot initiatives," said Joshua Dyck, a professor and co-director of Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "You're going to have higher voter turnout, and the electorate will be made up of a greater percentage of left-leaning Democrats than it would in a mid-term election."
That's good news for advocates of marijuana legalization and protections for farm animals, but bad news for supporters of a slots parlor and expanded charter schools, Dyck said.
Here's a breakdown of the questions and what a vote will mean:
MASSACHUSETTS BALLOT QUESTIONS 2016
Question 1: Expanded Slot-Machine Gaming
- A YES vote would permit the state Gaming Commission to license one additional slot-machine gaming establishment at a location that meets certain conditions specified in the law.
- A NO vote would make no change in current laws regarding gaming."
AT STAKE: If approved, the measure would allow the Gaming Commission to license a slots parlor on at least 4 acres of land, located next to a horse-racing track. The question doesn't identify proposed sites, but Suffolk Downs, which straddles the Revere-East Boston border, meets those requirements.
The state already has approved three casinos — including one being developed in neighboring Everett by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn — and a slots parlor at the Plainridge Park Casino, which opened last year.
Supporters of the question say it will be a catalyst for economic growth, providing up to 600 new, permanent jobs and giving gaming enthusiasts an opportunity to pull slots levers without having to travel to the state's only slots parlor in Plainville.
Opponents, including Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, say a new slots parlor will create traffic and crime problems. Opponents point out that the question is supported by a Delaware corporation, Capital Productions LLC, and have questioned its financial interests. Revere voters rejected the proposed slots parlor by a nearly 2-1 margin in a non-binding Oct. 18 referendum.
Question 2: Charter School Expansion
- A YES vote would allow for up to 12 approvals each year of either new charter schools or expanded enrollments in existing charter schools, but not to exceed 1 percent of the statewide public-school enrollment.
- A NO vote would make no change in current laws relative to charter schools.
AT STAKE: Massachusetts now has 83 charter schools with about 34,000 students. By comparison, about 1,800 traditional schools enroll roughly 922,000 students.
The state caps the number of charter schools that can be built and how many students can enroll. Those limits have resulted in long waiting lists.
State law requires school districts to pay for the education of a child who transfers to a charter school for at least six years after the student is accepted. That's one of the most generous reimbursements in the nation. The cost varies by district.
In recent years, the Legislature did not fully reimburse school districts that lost students to charter schools.
If the state received more than the dozen applications for new charters in a year, it would prioritize those in low-performing districts.
Opponents including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the Massachusetts Teachers Association say expanding the number of taxpayer-funded charter schools will drain already limited funds for traditional public schools. They want the state to either keep the cap in place, or impose a moratorium on new charters, while devoting more resources to public schools.
Supporters of the question, including Gov. Charlie Baker, dispute claims that charter schools are a drain on traditional schools and say expanding them will give more options to parents, especially those whose children attend poorly performing schools. Charters are performing well, say supporters, and deserve to grow to meet demand. The state enrollment cap creates waiting lists of kids deprived of a choice, they say.
Question 3: Conditions for Farm Animals
- A YES vote would prohibit any confinement of pigs, calves and hens that prevents them from lying down, standing up, fully extending their limbs or turning around freely.
- A NO vote would make no change in current laws relative to the keeping of farm animals.
AT STAKE: Because the use of confining cages is nearly non-existent in Massachusetts, the real impact here would be in banning the sale of eggs, pork and beef shipped from producers elsewhere.
The proposed law, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, prohibits the sale of shelled eggs and uncooked veal or pork produced by animals kept under conditions described by the question.
Supporters, including the Humane Society of the United States, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other animal-rights groups, say the move will make the state a leader in the cage-free movement. It will improve conditions for farm animals and enhance food safety, they argue, without dramatically affecting retail egg and meat prices.
Opponents, who include the Massachusetts Farm Bureau and the Massachusetts Retailers Association, say it would violate interstate commerce laws and create a shortage of eggs and meat, ultimately driving up costs, especially for low-income consumers.
Question 4: Legalization and Regulation of Marijuana
- A YES vote would allow persons 21 and older to possess, use and transfer marijuana and products containing marijuana concentrate (including edible products) and to cultivate marijuana, all in limited amounts. It also would provide for the regulation and taxation of commercial sales of marijuana and marijuana products.
- A NO vote would make no change in current laws relative to marijuana.
AT STAKE: It currently is illegal to grow, sell or possess marijuana, though a 2008 ballot question made it a civil offense to possess an ounce or less of marijuana, punishable by a $100 fine. Voters have also opened the door to its medical use.
If approved, the question will make Massachusetts only the fifth state, not including Washington D.C., to legalize recreational use of marijuana. The proposed law would take effect Dec. 15, 2016, and retail sales would be subject to the sales tax and a 3.75 percent excise tax. Cities and towns could impose taxes of up to 2 percent, as well.
Supporters, who include Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, say the regulation, sale, and taxation of marijuana — similar to that of alcohol — will provide much-needed revenue for the state, while driving down black-market pot sales. Health impacts of marijuana are negligible, they argue.
But opponents to the legalization question, who include Gov. Charlie Baker, say recreational pot use should remain illegal, especially given the danger it poses to youth. They note that marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law and say legalizing it would create health and public safety issues.
Source of "Yes" and "No" interpretations: Secretary of State William Galvin