BOSTON — Besides picking a new governor and deciding other statewide and legislative races, voters on Nov. 8 will consider ballot questions to tax the state’s wealthiest, set spending limits on dental insurers, expand retail beer wine sales, and repeal a law authorizing drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Massachusetts, with its strong consumer protection laws, is often viewed as a testing ground for changes in law and policy through the ballot box, and the outcomes of several of the questions are being closely watched nationally.
Supporters and opponents of the referenda have spent months standing outside supermarkets, convenience stores and community centers gathering signatures to clear ballot hurdles and raising money to get their message out to voters.
There are no limits on contributions to ballot question campaigns, and unions, big corporations and special interest groups on either side of the initiatives have poured more than $44 million into efforts to sway voters. A sizable chunk of the cash has come from outside the state, according to disclosures.
Here’s a look at the questions:
Tax the Rich?
Question 1 asks voters to amend the state Constitution to set a new 4% surtax on the portion of an individual’s annual income over $1 million. The money would be earmarked for transportation and education projects.
Supporters of the ‘millionaires tax’ argue the state’s top earners can afford to dig deeper into their pockets to drum up more money for fixing roads and bridges and providing more revenue for public schools. They say it will raise an estimated $2 billion for education and transportation projects.
Opponents argue the proposed excise tax will hurt businesses, drive away the wealthy and put a drag on the state’s pandemic-battered economy.
They say it would also impact “pass-through” businesses — where profits are passed to the owners’ personal tax filings and business income is taxed at personal rates, not just millionaires.
Critics also claim the effort is a backdoor attempt to replace the state’s 5% flat personal income tax with a graduated rate, which voters have rejected several times.
Much of the debate over the millionaires’ tax has focused on whether state Legislature could divert funding from the tax purposes other than education and transportation. Critics of the tax say there’s no guarantee, but supporters say the expenditures would be constitutionally required if voters approve the measure.
The question survived a legal challenge before the Supreme Judicial Court, which rejected a lawsuit filed by business groups claiming the move is unconstitutional.
A recent MassINC poll showed robust support — about 70% — among Massachusetts voters for approving a tax on the state’s top earners.
Dental insurance limits
Question 2 would, if approved, require dental insurance companies to spend at least 83% of every dollar they are paid on “expenses and quality improvements” instead of administrative costs.
Backers say the move is aimed at breaking up a “monopoly” in the industry by putting dental insurance spending requirements in line with those for medical insurers.
The Massachusetts Dental Society, which isn’t directly involved in the ballot initiative, also supports so-called medical loss ratio reform.
Insurers strongly oppose the plan, arguing that it would set “unprecedented” rules on the dental industry that will drive up costs for patients and dental providers.
Dental industry officials argue that dental insurance is structured differently than medical insurance, which is one of the reasons premiums are lower.
Opponents of the plan filed a lawsuit seeking to keep it off the November ballot, but the state Supreme Judicial Court rejected the legal challenge.
If voters approve the proposed referendum, the changes would go into effect in 2023.
Expanding beer and wine sales
Question 3 calls for gradually increasing the number of beer and wine licenses supermarkets and other retailers can own — rising to 18 over the next decade.
The plan would keep in place a cap on how many total licenses can be issued, and tighten limits on the sale of liquor and spirits. It also calls for tightening ID requirements for sellers and increasing penalties for businesses that are caught selling alcohol to minors.
The question, which was put on the ballot by the Massachusetts Package Store Association, is billed as a compromise with convenience stores that have been pushing for more beer and wine licenses, which are tightly controlled by the state.
Supermarkets are allowed to apply for licenses to sell beer and wine in Massachusetts, but a single company is limited to nine licenses. That cap increased this year, under a previous agreement between package stores and food stores. But “packies” say lifting up the cap entirely would destroy their industry.
Retailers have criticized the referendum as an attempt to stifle competition in the beer and wine market and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to keep it off the ballot.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time Massachusetts voters have been asked to weigh in on the divisive issue. In 2006, voters rejected a ballot question placed by supermarkets to lift liquor license caps to allow wine sales.
Licenses for the undocumented
Voters will also get to weigh in on a controversial new state law that authorizes driver’s licenses for people living in the U.S. illegally.
The states Republican party, which is pushing for the repeal, began gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot shortly after the Democratic-controlled Legislature pushed the measure through in the recent session.
Under the new rules, which would take effect next year, immigrants without legal residency status can only acquire standard driver’s licenses, not federally authorized Real ID-compliant versions. Applicants would be required to produce at least two official identity documents. They will also need to prove Massachusetts residency.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed the bill, citing concerns about the ability of the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to verify the identity of people seeking a license and that it could authorize undocumented immigrants to register to vote in state elections.
But the Democratic-controlled Legislature moved quickly to override Baker’s objections, mustering the two-thirds vote needed to make the proposal a law. Republicans and a handful of Democrats voted against the veto override.
Supporters of the law argue it would improve public safety and the livelihoods of the undocumented motorists who are already driving on the state’s roadways.
But critics say the new law lacks basic safeguards to prevent abuses and would unfairly reward people who are living in the United States illegally.
At least 16 states allow residents to get a driver’s license or permit regardless of immigration status, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More information on the ballot questions can found on the Secretary of State’s elections website.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.