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Support high for millionaires’ tax 2018 vote

Raise Up MA, Great Schools MA & others file signatures in bid to get on state ballot

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Raise Up Massachusetts’s petition to put a millionaires’ tax to state vote garnered an unprecedented level of support.

Various organizations seeking to place their causes on the 2016 state ballot — or, in the case of Raise Up Massachusetts, the 2018 ballot — turned in petition signatures last week. Among the handful of measures making the first cut — a minimum of 64,750 signatures — was Raise Up Massachusetts’s proposed state constitutional amendment, which would increase the tax rate on income earned over $1 million and use the revenue to fund public transportation and education

The organization’s petition swept in with more than twice the requirement, at 157,000 signatures.

“It’s my understanding that this petition has gathered the most signatures ever for a ballot,” said Maria Elena Letona, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, part of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition.

Should the rest of the referendum entry process go as smoothly, organizers say the level of support bodes well for voter passage of the measure in 2018.

“150,000 signatures. That’s a big bloc of votes in a statewide election. That’s more than Charlie Baker won by,” said Harris Gruman, director of the SEIU State Council.

Staff of Raise Up Massachusetts’ member organizations and volunteers collected the signatures. The coalition did not hire any outside signature gatherers, he said.

Wide support base

Several members of Raise Up Massachusetts said signature numbers demonstrate a powerful base that is bolstered by its diversity. Supporters of the millionaires’ tax come from across the state and represent a wide range of people.

“I highly doubt the governor will be on board with this,” said Calvin Feliciano, deputy political director of SEIU 509. “We’re hoping the counter to that is that we are so grassroots-oriented, so spread out.”

The coalition supporting the tax includes members of faith groups, community organizations, labor unions and even some millionaires, said Feliciano and Gruman. The many organizations constituting Raise Up Massachusetts have been able to draw on their infrastructure and volunteers while organizing in different communities.

“No one who doesn’t make $10 million a year is against this and even some who make that much are for it because they know what it means,” Feliciano said.

Some of the staunchest support comes from urban and liberal demographics.

“It does poll better with youth, people of color, all progressive constituencies and urban constituencies. Boston is very strong for it,” said Gruman.

Resources raised

Raise Up Massachusetts raised approximately $300,000 for its campaign to put the millionaires’ tax to vote, said Gruman, who estimated 20 percent of that was contributions by millionaires. Most, he said, came from unions and organizations. In-kind contributions — non-cash assistance and resources such as office space, staff time and photocopying — amounted to approximately $500,000. No cash equivalent was assessed for volunteer time.

Ballot advantage

Expectations are high for a strong voter turnout, and Feliciano said a vote is the ideal way to bring the tax initiative to implementation.

Past efforts to work through the legislature to change Massachusetts’s tax system have failed, largely due to the power of lobbyists or lack of political will on the part of officials, Feliciano said. Bringing the issue referendum may sidestep these hurdles.

“Lobbyists tear it to shreds, radio hosts tear it to shreds,” he said. “Things we can’t do because there is no political will for them, we can bring to the people.”

Challenges to come

Reaching the required signature count is just the first step in getting the millionaires’ tax onto the 2018 ballot.

Officials will check signatures for validity — including legibility and enough county representation. With such a surplus of signatures, it is almost certain the petition will pass. Before the measure goes to referendum, 25 percent of legislators have to approve it in a Joint Session of the Legislature in 2016 and again in either 2017 or 2018.

A risk, Gruman said, is that the legislature could quietly kill the measure simply by not holding a session to review it. While this kind of political maneuver is illegal, it has been used in the past with no reprimand from the courts, he said.

“One thing we have to do is convince the legislature to hold this vote and get as many people as possible to vote for it. That’s a big focus for next few months,” Gruman said.

The level of public support and visibility of the measure will make it more difficulty to bury than if the petition had squeaked by with the minimum amount of signatures, he said. Also promising: Senate President Stan Rosenberg has voiced support for the measure appearing on the ballot, Gruman said.

Another major campaign effort: to educate voters on the nuances of what the millionaires’ tax means, including how supporters believe it will benefit individuals’ lives and why they believe it will not have negative side effects. The goal is to offset misunderstandings or opponents’ potential arguments, Gruman said. They plan to conduct door-to-door outreach, as well as discussing the issue at community and worksite meetings.

“[The measure] gets very strong support. The question is really, ‘What demographic might we lose because of advertising campaigns against [the tax]?” Gruman said. “The suburban white vote might be turned off, but right now they’re supportive.”

Even with the measure’s current popularity, money is a major challenge. The opposition may include millionaires willing to put millions into the fight, Feliciano said.

Other measures

The petition to put lifting the cap on charter schools onto the 2016 ballot secured 73,000 signatures. The campaigns work has been undertaken by approximately 20,000 supporters, of which hundreds are volunteers according to Eileen O’Connor, spokesperson for Great Schools Massachusetts.

In both popular support and funding, Great Schools Massachusetts is prepared to campaign for ballot victory, O’Connor said, with polls showing two-thirds of state residents support the charter cap lift. An August 2014 Boston Globe poll recorded only 43 percent of state residents supported a cap raise, with 47 percent opposed.

“If necessary, we are confident that we will be able to match dollar for dollar the extremely well-funded opposition,” O’Connor said. She did not respond to questions about how much funding or human capital the lift-the-cap campaign has or how many paid signature gathers were hired.

The movement hopes the Legislature will act to lift the cap, without the matter going to referendum, said O’Connor.

Opponents of lifting the cap charge that the petition’s signatures reflect money, not popular support.

“Anyone can come in with tons of money and hire people to collect signatures. That’s what they did,” said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, a member of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance.

MEJA members fear that sympathetic members of the Legislature — Davis said many state Senators support keeping the cap — will try to minimize potential losses by crafting a compromise that would allow a small increase in the number of charter schools instead of risking losing the cap entirely, should the ballot vote not go in their favor.

But the current educational system already represents a compromise, said Davis, and his side expects to be able to secure victory by raising support through grassroots outreach.

“We won’t be buying a bunch of ads. We’ll be talking to tens of thousands of people in the community.”

Other petitions whose supporters say they reached enough signatures: putting minimums and limits on insurance reimbursement payments to hospitals, ending the use of Common Core educational standards, preventing cruelty to farm animals, allowing a slots parlor at Revere and legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana.