Road to a referendum: Behind the plans on 2024 ballot questions

Getting a question on the 2024 Summer Olympic Games to voters – whether it appears on Boston ballots this November or state ballots next year— faces significant hurdles, no matter the arena.

In Boston, Councillor Josh Zakim continues to pursue his citywide ballot initiative on the Games, a non-binding vote that would comprise four questions. The order, which is currently held up in Council President Bill Linehan’s special committee on the Olympics, must have a hearing before it goes to a vote in the council no later than Sept. 30, and with the mayor’s approval.

Zakim’s questions would ask: Should the city host the 2024 games? Should the city commit any public money? Should the city make any financial guarantees to cover cost overruns for the games? And should the city use eminent domain to take private land on behalf of the Games?

“I look forward to scheduling a hearing date with Councillor Linehan,” Zakim told the Reporter this week.

Linehan, who has made his support for the Games clear on multiple occasions, could decline to bring the matter to a hearing, but that would not necessarily kill the Zakim bill. According to the city’s election department, the initiative can get on the ballot either by a vote in the City Council with the mayor’s approval or by a petition of 10 registered voters presented to the City Council for its approval. If they don’t gain approval, Zakim would then need to collect 36,729 certified signatures —10 percent of the city’s registered voters — up to 35 days before the November election.

But with an election of his own on the horizon, Zakim does not appear interested in pursuing a Plan B, nor do other councillors appear inclined to pick up his ballot question torch if it falls by the wayside. “I think a council vote is the best method to get it on and I’m planning to go through that route,” Zakim said on Tuesday, adding that he planned to speak with Linehan later this week.

Linehan’s office did not return a request for comment.

Evan Falchuk, who is pursuing a statewide ballot initiative for November 2016, is skeptical of a citywide vote. “I hope he’s going to be successful, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Falchuk. “There’s very little reason not to have an opportunity to vote on nonbinding questions. It should be non-controversial, what councillor Zakim has proposed, but it’s not.”

Though Boston 2024 has signaled support for a ballot question on the Games for the 2016 statewide ballot, it is still far from a done deal.

The most significant questions revolve around the text of the ballot question and how it would be received by the attorney general’s office, two elements that must be ironed out this summer as 2024 seeks to boost positive public opinion of the Games coming to Boston.

Boston 2024 must first draft the ballot language and submit it to the attorney general’s office by Aug. 5. If the AG’s office approves the language, it is then submitted to the Secretary of State’s office, which has to issue signature papers no later than Sept. 16.

“It is still early in the process to detail what final language may look like, but we believe our bid will be stronger with a majority of citizens of Massachusetts and Boston in support,” said Boston 2024 spokesman Dave Wedge.

Boston 2024 would then have two months to gather 64,750 certified signatures from across the state before the question goes to the Legislature in January. If legislators choose not to take up the matter by the month of May, Boston 2024 must then gather an additional 10,792 signatures by July to put the question on next year’s ballot.

It is also within the Legislature’s power to put a 2024-related referendum on the state’s presidential primary ballot in March of next year. Boston 2024, however, has indicated it intends to put a question on the November 2016 ballot.

To remain in line with state law, Boston 2024 must also form a ballot question committee with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance “as soon as it begins raising money for the purpose of supporting its ballot question,” according to OCPF spokesman Jason Tait. That committee would act as a separate silo from Boston 2024.

In the meantime, Evan Falchuk has a head start on the ballot question process, with a question committee already formed and a draft text at the attorney general’s office, he told the Reporter on Tuesday. He also said Boston 2024 has not reached out to him about potentially consolidating ballot questions, nor is he interested in ceding his question to allow 2024 to only have one Olympics question on the ballot.

“Theirs won’t be something that says, ‘Do you want the Olympics?’ That’s not how the process works,” Falchuk said. “Assuming both of us get it through the process, there are two different proposed laws. We don’t know what theirs will say.”

Falchuk’s question would require a private sector-funded Olympics and ensure that no taxpayer money is spent to “procure, host, aid, further, or remediate the effects of the 2024 Olympics,” according to a text unveiled in March.

For its part, the United States Olympic Committee has signaled support for a referendum, although the organization declined to say which one. “We believe that Boston can and should lead America’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” said USOC spokesperson Patrick Sandusky. “The vision for these Games is sound and they would be a powerful catalyst for growth and progress in Massachusetts. But that vision must be shared by the citizens, and for that reason we fully support the notion of a referendum.”