Only a handful of questions likely to reach 2016 voters

A range of factors will almost certainly shrink the field

Maura Healey
(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

BOSTON (AP) — If history is a guide, Attorney General Maura Healey’s ruling that 22 initiative petitions can move forward doesn’t mean that anywhere close to that number will actually appear on next year’s Massachusetts ballot.

In the last seven election cycles dating back to 2002, no more than four statewide questions have reached voters and no more than two have been passed. The year 2000 was an outlier when the ballot included six proposed laws and two constitutional amendments.

Receiving certification that a question is properly worded and meets constitutional requirements may be a start. But money, organization and clout will ultimately determine future success.

In 2013, then-Attorney General Martha Coakley green-lighted 28 petitions, but only four made it to the finish line in November 2014. Two were approved by voters — a law requiring minimum sick leave for workers and the repeal of gasoline tax indexing.

Groups working to pass or defeat the four questions cumulatively spent more than $28 million, a record for any single election cycle, according to campaign finance records.

This time, the winnowing-out process started even before Healey issued her certification rulings.

An effort to bar public funds from being spent to host the Olympics was rendered moot after Boston was dropped as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Games. A proposal to require private employers to offer paid parental leave was withdrawn, and a constitutional amendment calling for nonpartisan elections for attorney general was deferred at the request of its filers.

A range of factors will almost certainly shrink the field much further, including redundancy.

There are four separate initiative petitions all seeking to legalize recreational marijuana use, but supporters are likely to settle on one to avoid confusing voters with multiple questions on the same topic.

Signature gathering poses a daunting task for many petitioners. A mere 10 signatures of registered voters are needed to submit a proposed question, but the next step requires 64,750 certified signatures by Nov. 18. In practice, supporters must collect far above that number to protect against inevitable duplicates and non-certified signatures.

Additionally, no more than one-fourth of the total signatures can come from a single county.

To accomplish such a task, ballot question sponsors must possess either a dedicated network of grassroots volunteers, or hire professional signature gatherers. Either route can be expensive.

Unions, business groups and other well-established political organizations — especially those that can tap the resources of larger national interest groups — therefore have a huge built-in advantage over ordinary citizens hoping to mount a ballot campaign.

But having issues that are easily understood or have broad public appeal can help. This dynamic could, for example, boost several proposed 2016 questions that deal with animal treatment, including one that would prohibit fishing gear that poses a threat to endangered whales.

Lawmakers can also negate the need for ballot questions by preemptively approving a law. The Massachusetts Nurses Association withdrew a petition last year calling for stricter nurse-patient ratios in intensive care units after the Legislature passed a compromise proposal. Similarly, groups seeking a minimum wage hike ended their ballot campaign when then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law raising the wage to $11 per hour over three years.

Current petitions seen as most likely to receive legislative attention include one calling for an expansion of charter schools, and another that would strengthen access to public records.

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