What the Ballot Questions in the 2014 Election Reveal About Voters

Two out of the four ballot questions that were up for review this past Tuesday passed. Massachusetts voters said yes to question one, repealing a law that made the tax on gas increase automatically with inflation. The legislature will now have to vote if they ever want to increase the tax. Question two, which would have made the beverage container deposit increase automatically with inflation, was rejected. Question three would have expanded state prohibitions on gaming and repealed the expanded gambling law. If passed, the third ballot question would have prevented the Massachusetts Gaming Commission from issuing any license for a casino, prohibited any casino or slots gaming under any licenses that the Commission had issued before the proposed law took effect and prohibited betting on simulcasts of live greyhound races. Voters approved of question four, which will require all Massachusetts employers of private and public companies to give paid sick leave which would be earned over time by the employee.

Fr. Richard McGowan S.J, an economics professor who studies public policy, gives a perspective on the votes and explains what the implications of these votes are for the state of Massachusetts.

A “yes” for question one forces Massachusetts to reassess the current system of funding the state’s transportation systems. “Ironically, the gas tax is probably not a great way to pay for highway repairs,” says Fr. McGowan, as a result of the movement within the automobile industry towards higher mpg vehicles. The end of gas tax inflation adjustments will result in even fewer funds. Without the revenues of the gas tax, the Massachusetts legislators will be forced to find an alternative for funding the highways, public transportation and infrastructure repairs; they will have to raise taxes elsewhere. The situation is paradoxical, “many voters who voted “yes” for this, do not want any tax increases, yet they do want better roads and public transport.” Massachusetts’s infrastructure is in desperate need of work and repairs, and voters recognize this, but are not willing to fund the project.

Question two is truly an environmental issue. “This proposal was sponsored by environmental groups and clearly the public does not want to expand the scope of the bottle bill.” While Massachusetts is generally a very liberal state, Fr. McGowan believes that this is an indication of voters’ desire to limit government.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Chappelear / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Christopher Chappelear / Flickr

Question three presents a moral conundrum. It was heavily campaigned for by various religious communities in Massachusetts for a “yes”, and was opposed by casinos and businesses that would profit from a “no”. “All of the Churches and many other groups were emphasizing the addictive nature of gambling and its possible adverse effects on the poor.” Gambling could also indirectly have negative repercussions for Massachusetts’s citizens, such as children and families of gambling addicts, or small restaurants that cannot compete with the casino’s prices.

Despite the work of religious communities, 60% of voters believed the benefits that could come from opening casinos outweighed the risks. Casinos would be a huge source of revenue to the government as they pay 25% of their earnings in taxes, and slot gaming parlors will pay 50%. The gambling industry would also create jobs and encourage tourism.

“Once again we see that the basic 'ethic' that voters operate under is 'tolerance.' You should be able to do what you want as long as it doesn't 'hurt' someone else,” states McGowan.

Despite this ethic of tolerance, when the votes are broken down by district, an interesting pattern occurs. Towns that would have a casino, like Foxboro, voted by a margin of over 60% to enforce gambling restrictions.

"It shows that the public wants the opportunity to gamble but not in their backyards,” says Fr. McGowan.

Question four’s passing ensures Massachusetts workers will be given paid sick leave. The bill will protect workers from retaliation for using sick days and keep workers from having to make a choice between being able to feed their family or staying home with a sick child. Adversaries say that the law will overburden small business and that the law is not flexible enough to acknowledge that all workers are different. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated that 54% of workers earning less than $35,000 have no earned paid sick leave in Massachusetts. Paid sick leave was supported by religious groups and many secular organizations.

“The Catholic bishops gave donations to help pass this measure," states McGowan. Notably, the bishops did not donate to anti-casino groups, implying that this measure “was of greater importance.”

Question four passed by a margin of 60/40, an adequately large victory for supporters. McGowan believes this passed because voters believe in a “fair” system where they receive the sick pay that they earned. It is important to note that this is “the one proposal that business lost.” It was clear to many voters that this would help the economy and those who face unreasonable choices between work, health and family.

These results show a state torn between its beliefs. Voters want a government that can provide services, such as paid sick leave, and increase infrastructure. However, Election Day also revealed an inclination toward individualism; voters want to limit the government and lower taxes. Clearly, voters did not swing in a definitive direction this November.

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