Initiative petitions sanctioning and regulating medical marijuana, empowering terminally ill and suffering patients to take life-ending drugs, and expanding the state’s bottle recycling law met all the legal criteria to move toward the 2012 ballot, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Wednesday, kicking off a two-month signature-gathering process for proponents who hope to bring the issues to voters next year.
The State House News Service reported Ms. Coakley certified 23 of 31 ballot questions — including questions on 17 different topics — submitted to her office last month by individuals and groups who have been unable to push their proposals through the Legislature and are hoping to bring their policies directly to the electorate.
Certification is a necessary first hurdle for ballot question proponents to clear. To advance further, they must gather 68,911 signatures by mid-November, typically a costly, intensive effort that has derailed ballot initiatives in previous years. Lawmakers have until May 2012 to take action on any ballot questions that clear the signature hurdle. If they choose not to act or pass an alternative, proponents must gather an additional 11,485 signatures to secure ballot access.
The attorney general’s office emphasized that her certification is not an indication that she has endorsed any of the proposals but merely that they meet the legal standards of permissible ballot questions.
Other questions that will also proceed to the signature-gathering phase include:
- Forcing auto manufacturers to share additional diagnostic information with repair shops;- Repealing the individual mandate for Massachusetts residents to obtain health insurance;- Permitting more food stores to sell beer and wine;- Prohibiting auto insurers from adjusting premiums based on socioeconomic factors; and,- Establishing consequences for teacher evaluations.
Ms. Coakley rejected a handful of initiative proposals, such as a Milford developer’s plan to sanction three Massachusetts casinos, including one designated for Milford. The attorney general ruled that the proposal violates standards that prohibit targeting a single community. Ms. Coakley also scuttled a plan pushed by opponents of Cape Wind that would force competitive bidding for energy contracts, contending that it would take private property without compensation. A plan to force voters to present valid identification was also improper, Ms. Coakley determined, because it “infringes on the freedom of elections.”
The decision to approve the bulk of the ballot questions could make for a messy fall and campaign season for voters. Although some proposals may fail during the signature-gathering process, and others could be dealt with by the Legislature, many are also backed by established groups with experience getting questions to the ballot.
Backers of a plan to permit doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live hailed the certification of their proposal, which would make Massachusetts the third state to sanction what they call “death with dignity.”
“The Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act would create a legally sanctioned process for dying patients whose suffering cannot be adequately controlled to receive a prescription from a licensed physician to bring about a peaceful and dignified death,” said Marcia Angell, former Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a proponent of the effort, in a statement. “As a physician who has studied this issue over many years, I believe the people of Massachusetts are ready to consider giving suffering patients this option.”
Catholic bishops, through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, reiterated their opposition to the plan Wednesday. “This Initiative Petition is a first step in Massachusetts toward legalizing physician-assisted suicide, effectively authorizing the killing of human beings prior to their natural death,” the conference wrote in a statement. “The Roman Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts stand firm in the belief that a compassionate society should work to prevent suicide, which is always a terrible tragedy, no matter what form it may take.”
The conference reissued a 1995 statement from Catholic bishops opposing physician-assisted suicide: “The Roman Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts are strongly opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide because it is contrary to the good of persons and contrary to the common good of this State. For once a society allows one individual to take the life of another based on their private standards of what constitutes a life worth living, even when there is mutual agreement, there can be no safe or sure way to contain its possible consequences.”
Critics of the proposal to force auto manufacturers to share more repair information ripped proponents for seeking to “bypass the legislative process.”
“The Attorney General’s decision simply affirms that so-called “Right to Repair” proponents — the big after-market parts industry attempting to gain unrestricted access to automakers’ proprietary information and intellectual investment — have the constitutional right under Massachusetts law to sidestep legislative authority and place their question on the 2012 ballot,” the Mass Auto Coalition said in a statement following the certification.
But backers said the question would empower car owners and bring the cost of repairs down by increasing competition.
“If the car manufacturers can continue to manipulate the market by withholding information, then do I really own the car?” said Jeff McLeod of Marshfield, one of the original signers of the proposal.
In making certification decisions, Ms. Coakley is bound to a strict set of criteria: the measures must be in proper legal form; they may not be substantially similar to any ballot measure that appeared on the ballot in either of the preceding two elections; and they must not target areas that have been deemed off-limits to initiative petitions, a list approved by voters in the 1918 election.
The list of “excluded matters” includes any proposals that relate to religion or religious practice; any that relate the appointment of judges or the powers of the courts; any that target particular cities or towns; any that require “a specific appropriation of money from the treasury of the Commonwealth”; and any that infringe on rights in the state constitution, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to receive compensation for the public use of private property, and freedom of elections.
Ballot question proponents or opponents who disagree with the attorney general’s decisions may pursue legal challenges with the Supreme Judicial Court.
Only one proposal, which establishes a right of all Massachusetts residents to high-quality health care, would amend the state constitution. Constitutional amendments offered through the ballot must be approved by a quarter of the Legislature in two consecutive sessions before proceeding to voters.