As is the case with most things Massachusetts, the wording of ballot questions can get pretty complicated and confusing.
Voting ‘yes’ on a ballot question means voting to change an existing law. But that only makes things clear if you already knew and understood the current law. Sometimes, voting ‘yes’ means getting rid of a law, so it feels a lot like voting ‘no.’
And just when you’ve done your homework and think you get it, you find yourself at a polling place, amidst a sea of signs screaming ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and…oh god, were you planning ‘yes’ on Questions 1-3 and ‘no’ on 4, or was it ‘no’ on 1 and ‘yes’ on the other three?
There are four questions on this year’s ballot, each of them answered with what seems like simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We’ve broken it down so you’ll know what your vote on each question actually means. And be sure to print out your ballot question cheat sheet found at the end of this article.
QUESTION 1: THE GAS TAX
Here’s the deal: In 2013, a law was passed that would tie the gas tax to the rate of inflation. That meant the tax would automatically increase every year there is inflation, without the legislature having to vote on it. This ballot question would repeal that automated yearly increase.
If you vote YES: You are voting to repeal the gas tax law. That means the gas tax will not change unless/until the legislature votes to increase it (or, theoretically, decrease it). There will still be a gas tax! The current rate of 24 cents per gallon would remain in place until the legislature votes to change it.
If you vote NO: Nothing changes. You are voting to keep the gas tax as is, meaning it will automatically increase each year, if there is inflation. (On the rare year there is deflation the tax will decrease, but it will never go below 21.5 cents.)
Who cares?: Tax activists (yes) vs. Government and its contractors (no)
Why you might vote ‘yes’: People who want the tax repealed say that because it increases automatically, it’s taxation without representation – something Bay Staters have historically opposed in impressively theatrical ways. And while the existing gas tax system might provide more money for infrastructure repairs, opponents believe that funding is already there — it’s just not being spent correctly. It’s also worth noting that, while a few cents per year may not seem like much, if the gas tax had been tied to inflation when it was last increased in 1991, it’d be 36 cents today.
Why you might vote ‘no’: Until this year, Massachusetts’s gas tax was 21 cents per gallon and hadn’t changed in 21 years, during which time we’ve had the budget-draining Big Dig. Now, it’s 24 cents (plus another 2.5 cents for the Underground Storage Tank fund tax). As of July 2014, Mass. gas taxes (state, federal, and excise tax combined) per gallon were 44.9 cents; that’s lower than the national average of 49.62. (Yes, we’re shocked to see ’Massachusetts,’ ‘tax,’ and ‘lower’ in the same sentence.) Proponents of the gas tax say the money will go toward necessary repairs to infrastructure, such as bridges that fall apart on top of you when you drive under them.
By the way: No matter how you vote, that three-cent rise from 2013 to 2014 will stay in place. As, most likely, will some of those potholes.
Outcome: Question 1 was approved by voters on Election Day.
QUESTION 2: THE WATER BOTTLES
Here’s the deal: The year is 1983. Journey is on the radio, everyone’s drinking Tab and Miller Lite, and no one is recycling their cans and bottles. A solution emerges: make people put down a tiny ‘deposit’ when they buy sodas and beers (in Massachusetts, it’s five cents). If the shopper returns the bottle or can for recycling, he or she gets the deposit back. It’s called ’incentive.’ Cut to 2014, and we’ve evolved beyond soda and beer. Now bottled water and sports drinks are popular. Oh, and juice, too. As anybody who’s ever brought a barbecue’s worth of recycling to a redemption center can acknowledge, you don’t get anything for bringing ‘em back. Nothing, nada, bupkus. The committee pushing Question 2 wants to broaden the law to include those other bottles in the redemption system.
If you vote YES: The five cent deposit will apply to bottled water, juices, sports drinks, and most other beverage containers, in addition to the soda and beer bottles and cans.
If you vote NO: Nothing changes. Your water bottles will cost the same as they do now, and you still won’t get five cents for recycling them.
Who cares?: Environmental activists (yes) vs. Bottling and grocery industry (no)
Why you might vote ‘yes’: In addition to encouraging further recycling, the law would provide more money to deal with environmental issues. Right now, unclaimed deposits go into the state’s general fund. Under the new law, unclaimed deposits (which, with a broader bottle base, would likely increase) would go to a fund specifically for green issues, such as waste management and air quality protection—though where, exactly, the money would go under the environmental umbrella would be determined by the legislature.
Why you might vote ‘no’: Your added costs at the register could come out to more than just five cents per bottle. The bottle deposit has been five cents since its inception, but this bill will increase it every five years according to inflation. The law also includes increased handling fees that beverage distributors and bottlers must pay per returned container, which could ricochet through the supply chain and be passed onto the consumer. (State research, however, has found that there isn’t much of a difference between the prices of bottled beverages in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where there is no bottle redemption program.)
By the way: When bottle deposit laws were passed, we didn’t have things like curbside recycling that made the process much easier. Many communities do now, so we may not need the monetary incentive to recycle the way we did back in 1983. However, recycling isn’t so easy for everybody: Though bottle deposit law opponents’ ads say 90 percent of the state’s residents have access to curbside recycling, The Boston Globe found that percentage is actually 64 percent, with 47 percent of cities and towns offering the service. Beware political advertisements.
Outcome: Question 2 was rejected by voters on Election Day.
QUESTION 3: THE CASINOS
Here’s the deal: In 2011, a new law allowed for three casinos and a slots parlor located throughout the state. But that law was passed by legislators. This question will let the voters decide whether or not casinos are right for the state.
If you vote YES: Yes means no: no more casino law and no more casinos. Approved plans for resort casinos in Everett and Springfield would be put on ice. Construction that has already begun on the Plainville slots parlor would stop. The state would not move forward with future plans to award a third casino in southeast Mass., which currently won’t happen before next summer.
If you vote NO: Nothing changes. The Plainville slots parlor, from Penn National Gaming, opens next spring. The Springfield and Everett casinos, from MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts, open as soon as 2017. No one knows when the casino in southeastern Mass. will open because the Massachusetts Gaming Commission keeps delaying the application deadline.
Who cares?: Community activists and religious leaders (yes) vs. Casino industry and union workers (no)
Why you might vote ‘yes’: While residents of the communities that will host casinos may be happy enough to usher them in, their neighbors haven’t gotten a vote in the matter and might not feel the same way. This is their chance to tell Steve Wynn to get off their lawn (and out of the state). Proponents of repeal also argue that casinos hurt society, and that promised gaming revenues may never pan out: some casinos in Atlantic City, for example, are flailing, suggesting that the industry itself is weakening as more states build casinos of their own and saturate the market.
Why you might vote ‘no’: The communities getting casinos already voted to have them, and are expecting big payments from the casino companies and a whole lot of new jobs. The state would also get a share of gaming revenue: 25 percent from the casinos, and 49 percent from the slots parlor. Casino proponents also note that even if the market is getting saturated, Massachusetts residents are going out of state to gamble anyway, and we might as well keep those dollars at home (thus generating more revenue for the state).
By the way: Even if voters say no to casinos, Republican candidate Charlie Baker has said he would try to find a way to keep the Springfield MGM project on track if elected governor. Martha Coakley, his Democratic challenger, has also said she is open to that idea…though, in fairness, she says she’s open to pretty much everything this campaign cycle.
Outcome: Question 3 was rejected by voters on Election Day.
QUESTION 4: THE SICK DAYS
Here’s the deal: Thanks to their benefits packages, many employees have the option of taking a day or two away from work when they’re sick. Many other workers, however, do not get that benefit. This proposed law would require almost all employers to give employees sick leave based on hours worked.
If you vote YES: You are voting to give workers paid sick time, which can be used when sick, going to a medical appointment, caring for a sick family member, or to deal with domestic abuse situations. Workers would get a paid hour of time off for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum of 40 paid hours in a year. The law would require employers with 11 or more employees to provide that paid time off.
If you vote NO: Nothing changes, and the issue remains in employers’ hands.
Who cares?: Worker activists (yes) vs. Retail and restaurant associations (no)
Why you might vote ‘yes’: Without mandated paid sick days, employees have to choose between going to work sick or calling out of work and not getting paid. If you simply can’t afford to miss a day’s pay, then you’re going to work sick. Do you really want a sick person handling your food, or working in a hospital where your loved one is a patient? The law also limits the number of paid days workers can take a year, to reduce the possibility that they’ll take advantage of the law by faking illness.
Why you might vote ‘no’: Fake sick or no, this is an added expense for businesses at a time when the economy is still plenty fragile. This could be particularly burdensome for restaurants, which generally pay waiters and waitresses less than $3 per hour (they make more in tips) but would have to pay an employee who takes a sick day the full minimum wage.
By the way: Our southern neighbors already have a similar sick leave law. Connecticut enacted its sick leave legislation in 2012, and only 6.5 percent of companies in the state said costs rose more than 5 percent as a result of the law. Nearly half said it had no effect at all. Connecticut’s law, though, includes a number of exemptions–for instance, it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees. The threshold in Massachusetts would be just 11 employees for paid sick leave.
Outcome: Question 4 was approved by voters on Election Day.
Click here for election results, updated live.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the campaign against Question 2 claims 90 percent of cities and towns have access to curbside recycling. In fact, the advertisement says 90 percent of residents have access, a figure that is still specious, as noted in this version of the article. We regret the error.