Mass. Attn. Gen. Gives Go-Ahead to Majority of Ballot Initiatives

Sep 5, 2013

A majority of proposed ballot initiatives have cleared their first major hurdle in Massachusetts.

After reviewing 33 petitions, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Wednesday that all but five meet constitutional requirements to reach voters on next year’s ballot. One of the initiatives given the go-ahead is the effort to repeal the expansion of the state’s sales tax to computer and software services that took effect in July.  State officials say expanding the 6.25 percent sales tax to computer services such as building websites and modifying software will bring in $162 million annually.  But that estimate is in dispute, partly because regulations about collecting the tax won’t be issued by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue until October. Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of the Fourth Berkshire District agrees that the expanded tax can be unclear to some.

“At the very minimum would us love to slow this thing down, pull it back a little bit to make sure we get people to understand, make sure it has the intended impacts,” Pignatelli said. “If not we should just outright appeal it.”

In a statement, House Minority Leader Bradley Jones says he is supportive of the ballot initiative, but will continue to work with Republicans to end the technology tax. The computer software services sales tax was part of a nearly $2 billion tax bill filed last winter by Governor Deval Patrick. But it appears to have largely gone unnoticed on Beacon Hill as the legislature rejected much of what the governor proposed and crafted its own $500 million transportation finance package. Pignatelli says that revenue is necessary.

“Our roads, bridges, municipal dams…they’re in deplorable shape and they’ve been ignored for over 20 years,” said Pignatelli.

Another initiative is the Patient Safety Act, which would set a maximum limit on the number of patients a nurse can care for at one time and require hospitals to adjust nurses’ assignments based on patient needs. The Massachusetts Nurses’ Association filed the initiative last month. Association President Donna Kelly-Williams says the association hasn’t been able to get this issue through the state government in past years.

“No matter what hospital you go into, that you have the right number of nurses available to care for you,” said Kelly-Williams.

Michael Leary is the Director of Media Relations for Berkshire Health Systems. He says a rigid nurse-to-patient ratio doesn’t address patients’ needs.

“We feel that ongoing care is best determined by our care-giving team and not a government mandated formula,” said Leary.

Pignatelli agrees.

“We don’t have a lot of babies being born in the Berkshires, certainly not at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington,” Pignatelli said. “But, to have someone come in and say ‘Since you have a maternity ward, you have to have X-amount of nurses,’ we may have two births a month. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Proponents of each certified initiative petition must now gather and file the signatures of about 70,000 registered voters before the end of the year. Once the signatures are obtained, the proposal is sent to the state legislature to act before May 2014. If the legislature fails to enact the proposal, its proponents must gather additional signatures of roughly 11,500 voters by July to place the initiative on the November 2014 ballot. Nurses’ Association spokesman David Schildmeier says the real work still needs to be done.

“It’s all for naught if unless we get out there and gather those signatures,” said Schildmeier.

One of the five initiatives rejected aimed to outlaw casino gambling in Massachusetts, a major topic of debate with casino licenses available for the first time and cities like Springfield entering into lucrative host agreements with operators. Another rejected initiative would have required labels on genetically modified food.