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Nearly three months after promising a statewide vote on its bid to host the 2024 Summer Games, many unanswered questions remain about the referendum process even as Boston Olympic organizers prepare to roll out a new master plan they hope will begin to address the concerns of a skeptical public.
What may sound simple — and up-or-down vote on the Olympics — may well be more complex; for example, how will the referendum be worded? And will the results be legally binding?
Adding a further wrinkle is a separate ballot initiative launched by a former third-party candidate for governor, one that could result in two questions on the November 2016 state ballot and the possibility — however unlikely — of competing results.
Boston was selected in January by the United States Olympic Committee as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Olympics. But support for the games has sagged in public opinion polls, in part due to concerns that taxpayers might get stuck with the bill for any cost overruns.
John Fish, then-chairman of Boston 2024, announced in March that the group would not go forward with a final bid unless a majority of both Massachusetts voters and those who live in Boston gave the green light.
The state’s ballot initiative process involves several steps over a roughly 15-month time frame. The first deadline, on Aug. 5, is the filing of the initiative with the state attorney general. The attorney general reviews it to certify that it meets strict constitutional requirements and if it does, backers must then hit the ground to gather tens of thousands of signatures by December.
A simpler alternative to that process would be to attempt a nonbinding referendum. Under this scenario, Boston 2024 could ask the Legislature to authorize putting a question on the ballot, and pledge to abide by the results even if it is not legally required to do so.
Organizers have given few hints as to how they plan to proceed. Erin Murphy, the group’s chief operating officer, said the immediate focus was on the new master plan expected by month’s end.
“Boston 2024 is focused on continuing to provide information to the community and elected officials, as well as listening to the suggestions and concerns of the public as the next phase of the bid is shaped,” she said.
Organizers have recently focused on venue announcements, including sailing in New Bedford, beach volleyball in Quincy and tennis in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
Evan Falchuk, founder of the United Independent Party, has already submitted a proposed ballot question to the attorney general that does not directly ask voters if they would support hosting the Olympics, but instead seeks to rule out any public financing.
“What our ballot question says is that you can’t spend taxpayer money on the Olympics,” said Falchuk, who got a little more than 3 percent of the vote in the 2014 election won by Charlie Baker. It would, however, allow for public investment in transportation infrastructure improvements that would have far-reaching benefits beyond the games.
Boston 2024’s current chairman, Steve Pagliuca, has said that while there is no plan to ask for public subsidies, there’s also no way to reduce to zero the potential risk to taxpayers.
A group spearheading opposition to the Olympics has no plans of its own to offer a referendum. But Chris Dempsey, leader of No Boston Olympics, said the language of Boston 2024’s question is critical and he would be wary of one that simply asks voters if they want the games.
“For us, that really only talks about the pros and not the cons,” Dempsey said. He has used the analogy of asking a child if he or she wants cotton candy, without the added warning that it might be bad for his or her teeth.
Assuming Boston is still in the running by November 2016, the referendum would come at a crucial time just months before the International Olympic Committee is expected to take final bids for 2024. Other international contenders could include Paris; Rome; Hamburg, Germany; and Budapest, Hungary.