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Mass. voters rule on gas tax, bottle bill, casinos, sick time


By Colleen Quinn and Michael Norton


STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts voters agreed Tuesday to move ahead with casinos and institute a new earned sick time law, while repealing a 2013 law indexing the gas tax to inflation and rejecting a proposal to expand the bottle deposit law.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Question 3, which sought to overturn a 2011 law legalizing up to three resort-style casinos and one slot parlor. Three expanded gambling licenses have already been granted for gaming venues in Everett, Plainville and Springfield. With 95 percent of the vote in, 60 percent of voters favored keeping the casino law and 40 percent favored the law’s repeal.

The group Repeal the Casino Deal sought to ban casinos and slots parlors, arguing addiction and crime rates will soar once they open, while businesses nearby will suffer. Those in favor of casinos pointed to thousands of jobs the new industry will bring, particularly in economically-depressed regions like Springfield and the southeastern part of the state.

Casino companies with a stake in the law spent millions of dollars in the fight, and the pro-casino group Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs ran television ads touting the jobs generated by the developing industry.

One TV commercial described the devastation in Springfield from a 2011 tornado that killed three people and damaged more than 1,600 homes, many of which had to be demolished. The commercial featured people talking about how casino construction would spur development.

“We are pleased that Massachusetts residents showed their continued strong support of casino gaming today. Today’s vote means that three of the world’s leading and most respected gaming companies will invest billions in Massachusetts starting immediately,” Committee to Protect Mass Jobs spokeswoman Justin Griffin said in a statement. “By preserving the casino law, voters ensured that we will generate 10,000 new jobs and 6,500 construction jobs for Massachusetts residents and will bring $400 million in new annual revenue for Massachusetts. That money can be invested in our priorities here – in education, infrastructure, and public safety.”

Robert DeSalvio, senior vice president of Wynn Resorts, which plans to build a resort casino in Everett, applauded the outcome of the vote.

“Tonight, we get to work on creating four thousand great paying careers and generating millions of dollars in tax revenues to businesses throughout Massachusetts,” DeSalvio said in a statement. “While it has been a long process, the benefits to everyone in the Commonwealth will be worth it. We thank the voters for their support and look forward to uniting with our neighbors to build a destination resort that all of us will be proud of.”

Repeal the Casino Deal Chairman John Ribeiro reacted to the vote.

“Of course we’re disappointed we came up short on Tuesday, but we left it all on the field and our work is not over,” Ribeiro said in a statement. “The casino industry profits at the expense of families and small businesses. Rest assured, we will be watching the licensing process and the Massachusetts Gambling Commission very closely as the process continues.”

Massachusetts companies without earned sick time benefits for workers will have to offer them under Question 4, which was approved. With 95 percent of the vote in, 60 percent of voters supported the question and 40 percent voted against it.

Under the ballot initiative, businesses that have 11 or more employees are mandated to give workers up to 40 hours of earned paid sick time each calendar year. Companies with less than 11 employees will be required to give workers up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time each year.

After July 1, 2015, employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employees could carry up to 40 hours of unused sick time into the next calendar year.

After the results rolled in, the Yes on 4 Coalition issued a statement.

“Ted Kennedy said that ‘no one should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.’ With passage of earned sick time, no parent in Massachusetts will be forced to choose between going to work to put food on the table and staying home to take care of a sick child. No worker will risk losing their job because they need to see a doctor,” the coalition said.

“This vote shows that the people of Massachusetts fundamentally believe that the ability to care and provide for themselves and family members is a right, not a privilege. Earned sick time will help small businesses succeed by making employees healthier and more productive, and will keep money in the hands of consumers who spend it in their neighborhoods, helping grow our local economies. For the almost one million workers in Massachusetts who today can’t take a single day of paid sick time, this vote is a major victory.”

Voters struck down a state transportation financing law tying future gas tax increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), removing another piece of a law intended to help generate new revenues to pay for transportation system maintenance and expansion. With 96 percent of the vote in, repeal supporters had 53 percent to 47 percent for Question 1 opponents, representing a lead of more than 100,000 votes.

After the Legislature in 2013 raised the gas tax by 3 cents and indexed future increases to inflation, a handful of Republican lawmakers joined a grass roots movement to repeal the indexing portion of the law, gathering more than 100,000 signatures for the ballot petition.

Critics of the law called it a “forever tax,” and said it removed accountability from lawmakers who would not have to vote on future tax increases. Supporters argued the state’s roads and bridges would continue to deteriorate without the additional tax revenues to keep up with maintenance needs. Mayors from several cities, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, backed the automatic gas tax increases. Democrat Martha Coakley supported indexing, while Republican Charlie Baker wanted to overturn it.

Former Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, who resigned at the end of October, told lawmakers last month if the question repealing the gas tax indexing passed, the next governor would have to nix many transportation projects from the to-do list because it would eliminate $2 billion in long-term funding.

The ballot question seeking to tack the 5 cent bottle deposit on to drinks besides soda and beer failed. With 95 percent of the vote in, only 27 percent supported Question 2 and 73 percent opposed it.

Environmentalists, who have fought unsuccessfully in the Legislature for more than a decade to expand the deposit to other drinks, argued the deposit would boost recycling of cans and bottles, and cut down on litter. Opponents called the deposit an outdated idea, and touted the benefits of curbside recycling.

“We are extremely pleased that voters statewide have seen the many flaws in adding to a costly, inefficient and outdated forced deposit system,” Nicole Giambusso, a spokeswoman for No on Question 2 campaign said in a statement. “Massachusetts families today have widespread access to community recycling programs, like curbside. With this vote, Commonwealth residents sent a message that it’s time to move forward and expand convenient, comprehensive recycling programs, so that Massachusetts can become the recycling leader that it should be.”

Environmental groups backing Question 2 were greatly outspent by the beverage industry, which poured more than $8 million into the campaign to defeat the plan to add the deposit to containers beyond the current carbonated beverages and beer bottles. Supermarket chains also weighed in leading up to the election, posting signs urging shoppers to vote no on “forced deposits.”

Environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and the Conservation Law Foundation, have fought for years to get a bill passed on Beacon Hill. While it has passed in the Senate, it failed to gain traction in the House of Representatives, leading so-called bottle bill proponents to take the measure directly to voters.

“We might have lost the vote on Question 2 today, and we will look closely at what we could have done better, to be more effective as we move forward. But let’s be clear about what happened, ” Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, said in a statement. “The No on 2 campaign wasn’t stupid. They presented their side as pro-environment and pro-recycling because they understand that Massachusetts voters want more recycling, not less. That was the goal behind Question 2 and it remains our goal moving forward.”