- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - As many as six ballot questions could go before voters in 2016 - the most in 16 years - but activists pushing initiatives in Massachusetts often have a second audience in mind: the state Legislature.

In recent years, advocates have used the threat of a ballot question to pressure lawmakers into action.

In November 2013, a labor-backed group said it had collected far more than the required number of signatures to put a question on the 2014 ballot to raise the state minimum wage from $8 to $10.50 per hour over two years.

The following day, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly to increase the wage to $11 over three years. The House followed suit and then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed the higher wage into law in June 2014.

The group quickly pulled the question.

While the pressure wasn’t the sole reason for the higher wage, it helped focus attention on the issue. And it wasn’t the only proposed question aimed at lawmakers during the last election cycle.

When lawmakers approved a law in 2013 applying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to computer and software services, opponents quickly filed a question to repeal the tax.

Even before they could begin gathering the tens of thousands of signatures needed to put the question on the ballot, lawmakers backtracked and killed the tax.

Also last year, a union representing nurses withdrew two proposed ballot questions after lawmakers reached a deal on nurse-patient ratios.

This year, the backers of a proposed ballot question that would ease state caps on the number of charter schools are also hoping to spur lawmakers into action.

The question would let the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approve up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing charter schools each year.

The new charter schools and expansions would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.

About 80 charter schools currently operate in Massachusetts. More than 37,000 students were placed on waiting lists for charter schools for the 2015-16 school year.

The House approved a bill last year that would have gradually raised the cap on charter schools in Boston and several other school districts, but the legislation failed to win support in the Senate.

“Unless the state Senate answers the call from 37,000 families desperate for fair access to great public charter schools, Massachusetts voters will,” Beth Anderson, president of the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association, said in a statement this week.

Opponents, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, have said the question - which echoes the language of a bill proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker - could help create a two-tiered education system, one truly public and the other private, but financed with public dollars.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin announced plans earlier in the year to put another question on the ballot overhauling the state’s public records law.

Galvin said after speaking to lawmakers he’s now confident such a measure will pass next year. A coalition of public watchdog groups, civil rights advocates and Massachusetts newspaper publishers have pressed for changes.

“On basis of that I’m not pursuing my question,” Galvin said. “I was only filing it to make sure something would be passed.”

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