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Last Minute Answers to 2016’s Questions in Mass…

Election Day brings a regular swig of direct democracy here in Massachusetts. Four ballot questions are on the statewide ballot with an additional question in cities like Holyoke and Springfield. Below, we offer our view on a few of the referenda this year.

Question 1: Expanding Slot Parlors: NO

This blog has maintained longstanding opposition to expanded casino gambling. We opposed the legislation. We opposed Springfield’s casino-host community agreement in 2013. We supported repeal in 2014. But there is a further reason to oppose Question 1. Adding another slot parlor, the existing one of which has not met expectations, will only further saturate the market. Proponents argue this will mean more revenue for the state. Such promises are wildly optimistic. Plainridge, near the Rhode Island border, has repeatedly reported less coin in than hoped. That means less for the commonwealth, too.

For the Raynham slot parlor, Wynn and MGM to succeed, they will have to contend with growing out-of-state competition. We do them no favors by spreading an already thin audience among more venues. Where would this new facility go? Where could it go that it wouldn’t take business away from the resort casinos? The answer is probably nowhere. We may not like expanded gaming in Massachusetts, but we want it to be a success and deliver the promised results. That won’t happen if we set a precedent that leads to ubiquitous Nevada-style legalization. Vote NO on 1.

Question 2: Raising the Charter School Cap: NO

This question would raise both the total number of charters schools in Massachusetts and the cap on what percentage of a district’s budget can be shifted into charter schools.

Our first impulse is reject a question of this kind because of the immense complexity behind this issue. What voter can adequately weigh the massive policy implications of futzing with districts’ budgets, decoding the effectiveness of charter versus public schools and consider whether the real problem is Beacon Hill’s own tight-fistedness on education. Citizen initiatives were created to act where the legislature has refused to, but it must not be abused to sidestep nuance and data.

But there are reasons of substance to oppose this question.

We do not oppose charter schools. We are agnostic on the subject. But this question fails to correct underfunding in our public school budgets and to ensure charters enroll and retain a student body reflective of the district in which they operate. Additionally, all future charters must retain other aspects of public character with respect to taxpayer accountability and more prosaic issues like public records law. This measure does not do that.

In many ways this issue pushes up against numerous concerns. We respect the legitimate concerns of urban school district parents who see the public system failing their children. But the problem is that as written, this measure only ensures more inequity.

Students who enroll in charter schools take their per child funding with them, but the traditional public school system must pay the legacy costs. With only marginally fewer students, the cost of operating the traditional schools will not fall concurrently. Then there are concerns that special needs students or those with behavioral problems are foisted back up on the traditional schools along with the concurrent costs.

A sleeper concern in this debate is funding. If Question 2 passes, the legislature and governor may well duck more responsibility and not address funding issues within the current state education budget. Boosting charter enrollment may conceal this problem and spare Charlie Baker and legislators the burden of having to raise taxes to sustain Massachusetts’s educational achievement and spread it to poor districts. That’s cowardly.

Supporters of Question 2 have done themselves no favors with salacious claims that millions of education money will become available if the cap is raised. No funding mechanism is attached to this question. Gov. Baker assures it will not affect anyone outside nine districts—one of which is Springfield. The numbers say all districts lose out in the current funding formula, suburban districts, too.

If Massachusetts wants to expand charter schools, so be it. But we should deal with the financing issues first. Vote NO on Question 2.

Question 3: Humane Chicken Cage Size YES

Tentatively we prepared to reject this question based on the complexity of the issue as we discussed in Question 2. However, our analysis has concluded that his would only affect one farm in Massachusetts and be the right thing to do for our feathered friends.

It seems unlikely one facility would shut down from a rule that allow the animals to have just a bit more space during their life as egg-layers. Moreover, some supporters have suggested it could help Massachusetts agriculture. As other egg farms in the commonwealth already meet this requirement, humane eggs could become a marketing point for Bay State egg-farmers.

This is an issue that probably, too, should have been handled by the legislature. However, with a manageable downside, a potential economic upside and a moral obligation as stewards of creation—even that in service to our needs—we have no problem urging a YES on Question 3.

Question 4: Legalization of marijuana YES

This question would bring Colorado/Washington-style legalization of cannabis products to the commonwealth. Massachusetts has been on the move of marijuana liberalization for eight years. In 2008 voters decriminalized it. In 2012 they approved medical marijuana. This year is the next logical step.

It is worth noting that a similar chorus of opponents have objected to each of these steps. The arguments range from the danger pot poses to public safety to tying cannabis to the opioid crisis to kids’ access to the drug. Of these, only the last is a legitimate concern, but not an overriding one.

The fact is marijuana prohibition has not stemmed teenage access to pot. It is doubtful it will become that much more prevalent among youth with it being legal. Ultimately, the law cannot be a substitute for parenting. If a frank conversation about the affect of ANY, un-prescribed mind-altering substance with kids will not stop them experimenting, keeping it illegal certainly will not either.

As for public safety and gateway drug concerns, these are scientifically dubious claims that serve only one purpose: stoking fear. Law enforcement and too many politicians are fearful themselves. Their fear is not of pot, however. Many opponents have probably lit up themselves. They fear the legal unknown and what upending 80 years of marijuana policy will do.

But it must be done. Though decriminalization was a huge step toward equity in our society by removing a crime from our laws that disproportionately stained the records of people of color. Whites smoke plenty of pot, but did not face the same likelihood of arrest or prosecution. But issues remain.

Legalization not only removes this entirely from the justice system, it creates an opportunity to get a hold of a market that for decades has existed without regulation. Legalization means quality control in product and less risk for spiking with dangerous chemicals. There are legitimate concerns about the potency of edibles. However legalization also means we can address them.

The commonwealth will collect revenue and entrepreneurs can grow businesses rather than directing money into a black market controlled by a criminal element.

Prohibition did not work for alcohol, which poses far more public health and safety risks than marijuana and its active ingredient THC. Prohibition has not worked for pot. We should end it and vote YES on Question 4.

Question 5: Community Preservation Act (select communities) YES

This blog has long urged Beacon Hill to set sensible tax policy to fund government properly. We have opined against ballot question tax cuts and in favor of keeping the income tax rate from falling. Yet we actually do not oppose the controls on property taxes. The fact is property taxes are a regressive levy that struggling cities have no choice but to ratchet up without state-imposed limits.

CPA will add a 1.5% surcharge on the property taxes assessed after the first $100,000 of value. That amounts to about $10 more a year for a property valued at $135,000.

But CPA is not just any normal tax increase. It endows the community with a unique role and voice in small-scale investments. Certainly we support passage of Question 5 in Holyoke, but it is especially necessary in Springfield.

One of Springfield’s greatest assets has been its incredible neighborhoods. Forty years of overemphasizing downtown at the expense of these colorful, unique communities within Springfield has not killed the city’s neighborhoods. But they are not all doing well.

CPA is intended to address housing, open space/recreation and historic preservation. Investment in any of these throughout the city could do wonders. It could encourage people to choose to live in the city near spruced up parks or to open a business in a re-purposed historic building.

The reality is we do not know how it will play out because spending will be up to a committee composed of technocratic city bodies and, if the City Council so desires, ordinary citizens. It will not be up to the mayor.

It is an opportunity to put the power in the hands of the people. Vote YES on Question 5.