“Grand bargain” keeps voters from deciding ballot questions

July 1, 2018

BOSTON (AP) — On Beacon Hill, they call it the “grand bargain” — the new law that will gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, require paid family and medical leave for workers and mandate a sales tax holiday every August.

It’s also the mother of political deals involving the Republican governor, the Democratic leaders of the Massachusetts House and Senate and representatives of labor unions and business groups.

The ultimate goal? Making sure voters didn’t get the chance to weigh in on a raft of proposed ballot questions in November, including a question that would have lowered the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent.

The negotiators feared that if voters backed the tax cut — and polls suggested they would — the loss of revenue would leave a massive hole in the state budget of about $1.2 billion a year.

That fear took on new urgency after the state’s highest court tossed out another question that would have created an amendment to the state constitution that would have imposed a 4 percent surtax on any portion of an individual’s annual income that exceeded $1 million.

The question — which polls also suggested was popular with voters — could have generated an extra $2 billion in state revenue each year, more than enough to offset the loss of revenue from the proposed sales tax cut.

With the so-called “millionaire tax” off the table, Beacon Hill leaders ramped up their efforts to cut a deal to make sure voters didn’t get a chance to approve the sales tax cut.

The “grand bargain” talks put Gov. Charlie Baker — no friend of tax hikes and an avowed supporter of the ballot question process — in the awkward position of defending a deal that aimed to kill a significant tax cut by blocking a series of ballot questions from reaching voters.

Baker said he’s been on the pro and con side of ballot questions. Two years ago he supported a proposal to which would have let Massachusetts add up to a dozen new or expanded charter schools each year outside of existing state caps. The question was defeated.

But Baker said not every question has to go before voters to get sorted out.

“I don’t have a particular problem with doing it either way,” he told reporters this week. “In this particular case I’ve said for months that I thought these issues would be better resolved in a statutory manner than they would be on the ballot.”

Baker also said that the “grand bargain”, which he said was being worked on for months, was about more than just the proposed cut in the sales tax.

Under the deal — which was signed by Baker on Thursday — workers will be able take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a sick family member or new baby, and up to 20 weeks of paid leave for their own medical needs.

The measure would gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $11 to $15 an hour by 2023. And it would phase out over five years the rule that workers be paid time-and-a-half for working on Sundays, a vestige of the state’s mostly defunct Sunday blue laws.

The bill also includes a requirement the state hold an annual August sales tax holiday as proposed by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

The deal essentially knocks three questions off the ballot in part by writing many of their goals into the new law.

One question, pushed in large part by union supporters, would have raised the minimum wage to $15, but over a shorter period of time. Another backed by the same group would have provided for paid family leave. A third, pushed by retailers, would have required the sales tax holiday while also lowering the sales tax rate.

The groups behind the questions agreed to pull the initiatives once the bill was signed by Baker.

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