Ballot Questions Are No Way to Govern


They call it the ‘grand bargain,’ only, for anyone doing business in this state, it isn’t that at all.

It is, however, a grand compromise, which is something we may be seeing more of in this state given the way referendum questions — and the fear of them — are coming to rule how we do things in the state, literally and figuratively.

In recent years, ballot referendum questions have come to determine many things in this state — from whether we have nuclear power plants (we did, but not anymore), to whether recreational marijuana use is legal in this state (it now is, but the issue is so fraught with peril that the state keeps finding ways to delay what is now inevitable), to how farm animals are to be treated.

And this year, there’s a measure that would dictate how many patients nurses can take care of at any given time — we’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, the grand bargain. It came about because referendum questions were being prepared for the ballot that would, among other things, raise the minimum wage, increase paid leave, and reduce the sales tax.

Business leaders, fearful that in liberal Massachusetts all those questions would pass easily (and those fears are certainly well-grounded), took a decidedly proactive approach. They struck up a deal that would delay, slightly soften, or even scrap (the sales-tax reduction) those proposals in exchange for keeping them off the ballot.

A grand bargain? Hardly. The minimum-wage hikes, to be implemented over the next five years, and the increased family leave, while well-intentioned to be sure, will wreak havoc in a region like this, dominated as it is by small (as in very small) businesses and nonprofit operations. They’ll be hurt, but so will employees who will see their hours cut to keep their wages the same and ultimately see their buying power reduced as companies raise prices on a host of items to cover their increased labor costs.

But, again, this is better than the alternative — letting referendum questions bring more draconian changes, and much sooner.

As we said, referendum questions are becoming the way to govern in this state and many others, and, from a big-picture perspective, the picture is becoming more alarming.

On the surface, the referendum question is the most democratic form of government; let everyone (or at least everyone who votes) decide, rather than the men and women we send to City Hall and the State House.

But are the voters of this state the people who should be deciding such things as nuclear power, the legalization of marijuana, and, yes, nurse-staffing ratios, a matter that few people not in the business of running a hospital or tending to patients can fully understand?

It’s a good question, one that reflects the sentiments expressed by local business owner Carol Campbell in the story in thsi issue: “I have a hard time with people telling me how to run my business.”

But it’s a question that has already been effectively answered in the affirmative. The ballot question will remain a force in this state, and it will only gain more power over time.

Perhaps the grand bargain can serve as a model going forward for how to control the awesome power of the ballot question to alter the landscape and change lives in the process.

Let’s hope so.