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Recap and analysis of the week in state government

By Matt Murphy


STATE HOUSE — Nine months ago voters put their faith in now Charlie Baker to follow through on promises to make government more efficient, to increase school choice and to bring jobs back to struggling urban neighborhoods.

“Let’s be great, Massachusetts,” Baker challenged the electorate, and in response it replied, “Yes, please.”

After this week, however, it became clear that pockets of Massachusetts residents, including presumably some of the 48 percent that elected Baker as governor, have some additional suggestions for what might make Massachusetts great again, and for which they have little confidence in Beacon Hill pols to do on their own.

In this reimagined Massachusetts, whales and sea turtles will no longer get caught in fishing nets, business will no longer be considered people (for campaign finance purposes), Common Core education standards will be ditched, charter schools will multiply, hospital revenues will be reapportioned, and smoking pot and lighting off fireworks in your backyard will be as legal as puffing a cigar around a camp fire.

Whether the groups behind these ideas represent the majority of residents or just niche interests, only time will tell. But as of Wednesday at 5 p.m., 35 initiative petitions proposing 26 new laws and nine constitutional amendments (some of which were duplicates) had been placed on file with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. It’s the most since 1994 when 42 petitions were filed and seven actually made it to the ballot.

Constitutional amendments take longer to make it to the ballot – the last ones that made it were in 2000 (redistricting and prisoner voting rights) – and face more hurdles given the fact that the Legislature must vote twice over the next four years to advance the questions to voters in 2018.

Still, one such effort to tax the wealthy on income over $1 million at a higher rate – 4 percentage points above the income tax rate – got a boost from Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. The Amherst Democrat has gone on record saying the issue should be debated, which is more of an opening than tax reform advocates have had in the recent past.

Marijuana advocates, predictably, grabbed the lion share of headlines and attention when two groups with one common goal, but very different approaches, filed a total of four proposals to legalize recreational marijuana use in Massachusetts.

It’s the next step in what has been an eight-year slow burn toward legalization starting in 2008 with the decriminalization of small amounts of pot. Baker, Healey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh all hate the idea, but the lack of significant political support hasn’t slowed down marijuana activists in the past, and they don’t think it will stop them now.

It’s entirely possible that a little over a year from now in Walsh’s Boston it will be legal to light up a joint, but a fineable offense to pack a lip with chewing tobacco, even if you’re David Ortiz.

The differences between the pot proposals boil down to whether supporters think marijuana should be taxed above the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax and put under the thumb of a new regulatory division, or whether it should just be legalized and treated as any other crop with the issue of regulation left up to the Legislature.

Baker’s disdain for marijuana did not extend to other populist recommendations from the peanut gallery. The governor has long been a fan of the idea of expanding access to charter schools, even though he plans to file his own legislation in the fall.

After hitting a roadblock in the Senate last year, the charter school group filed a petition that would keep existing statutory caps on charter seats, but allow the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to skirt those caps if they see fit. Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni called it “equally as dangerous” to traditional public schools as eliminating the caps altogether, proving that the issue still burns hot.

Secretary of State William Galvin is counting himself among the aggrieved and those frustrated by inaction on Beacon Hill pertaining to public records reform.

House leaders delayed action last week on a public records bill until after the August recess, prompting Galvin to follow through with filing his own petition seeking to compel government to comply with requests for records without being dilatory or cost-prohibitive.

Galvin said his desire is still for the Legislature to pass a bill so he can pull his petition, and reform advocates, such as the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, are hopeful that will happen too. They were less than impressed by Galvin’s recommendations, and see Rep. Peter Kocot’s bill as a stronger alternative.

The deadline for filing possible 2016 ballot questions dominated the news cycle this, but Baker also signed legislation establishing a sales tax holiday on Aug. 16-17 and another bill sealing the expansion of the earned income tax credit that had been negotiated in the budget.

A Superior Court judge heard arguments for why unions should not be able to donate $15,000 to a candidate for public office when businesses are prohibited from giving.

As that plays out in a lower court with the potential to rise to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s highest court – the Supreme Judicial Court – settled a complaint that arose during Rep. Brian Mannal’s campaign last fall invalidating a nearly 70-year-old law that criminalized false statements designed to help or hurt a candidate for office.

The court, in its ruling against Mannal, found that the law was “antagonistic to the fundamental right of free speech.”

The first week of the August recess started with joint news from the Big Three that Gov. Baker had signed off on a letter with Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo asking the Council of State Governments and the Pew Center of the States to come to Massachusetts and help them examine criminal justice policy.

Baker’s interest seems to lie more in finding ways to reduce recidivism rather than scrapping mandatory minimum sentencing, which some would like to see happen through this process. But it’s a start on an issue where policymakers haven’t been able to find common ground, and Rosenberg said the Senate may have more to say on this topic in the fall.

STORY OF THE WEEK: What do whales, pot, fireworks and charter schools have in common? They all have champions hoping to take their cause to the ballot in 2016.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Legalization is not for stoners. It’s for parents.” – Dick Evans, an attorney with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Evans said the ballot drive is about creating a “new culture of responsible use.”

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