What's on Your Ballot? States Decide on Taxes, Clean Energy, Pot, and More on Tuesday
On Tuesday, in addition to electing federal, state, and local officials to a new term, voters in 37 states will decide on approximately 160 ballot measures, including statewide initiatives, proposed amendments to state constitutions, and legislative and popular referenda. The total number of ballot measures across the nation is down this year from recent highs in midterm election years - according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, there were 224 ballot measures nationwide in 2002 and 226 in 2006.
While in previous years conservatives attempted a coordinated effort to flood ballots across the nation with divisive measures on issues like reproductive rights, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage, this year the focus of ballot initiatives across the nation seems to be largely on economic and tax and budget issues. Proposals to address widespread state budget crises range from raising revenue through instituting progressive tax policies (Washington) to cutting corporate tax loopholes (California) to decimating state economies through conservative revenue-slashing measures (Colorado and Missouri). A few largely symbolic right-wing measures to nullify the new health care law qualified for the ballot this year, as did a collection of corporate-backed initiatives intended to further obstruct workers' rights. Also on the ballot in multiple states are measures regarding marijuana laws, energy and the environment, election reform, and reproductive rights. Below is a roundup of some of the most notable ballot measures facing voters on Tuesday.
On November 2, voters in a number of states will consider tax-related ballot initiatives that could have dramatic impacts on the direction of fiscal policy and the provision of essential services. As states deal with the lingering effects of the severe economic downturn, taxes have become one of the most highly contentious political issues - so much so that over 25% of ballot measures to be considered on election day across the nation relate to tax and budget policy.
As the Citizens for Tax Justicenoted, "[w]ith a couple of notable exceptions, these ballot initiatives would make state taxes less fair or less adequate (or both)." Several ballots will feature misguided measures that would threaten economic recovery prospects and impede on a state's ability to provide funding for essential services, including efforts to implement property tax caps and require super-majority approval to generate revenue. However, there are a few noteworthy progressive initiatives.
Some of the most prominent proposals will appear on the ballot in California, Colorado, Missouri, and Washington state.
Californians will consider Proposition 24 next week, which would eliminate three corporate tax breaks the Legislature enacted in 2008 and 2009. According to proponents of the initaitve, including the California Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters of California, and the California Tax Reform Association, these policies only benefit about 2 percent of the state's companies, overwhelmingly favoring large corporations and out-of-state corporate entities over small businesses.
Passed at a time of extreme fiscal duress, the tax breaks are both economically inefficient and extremely costly. If voters approve this proposition, the state will save approximately $1.3 billion in revenue, that would be better directed towards funding essential programs and creating jobs through more effective investments in infrastructure and other public structures.
Proposition 25 will additionally appear on the ballot, an effort to end the state's current two-thirds requirement to pass the budget or other appropriations-related issues other than tax increases. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the "requirement has often enabled a small number of legislators to hold the budget captive." Considering the perpetual delays and budget fiascoes California has experienced in recent years, approval of this measure would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.
Colorado is confronting a package of particularly heinous proposals, Amendments 60, 61, and Proposition 101, crafted by anti-government advocate Doug Bruce. Dubbed the "Bad 3," they would limit the ability of the state and local governments to invest in communities.
Amendment 60 would require school districts to cut property taxes in half by 2020, void previous elections that retained property tax revenues above TABOR limits, and force the state to fill the gap in school funding.
Amendment 61 would prohibit any state debt financing and place a limit on local bonds for school, fire, and hospital construction.
Finally, Proposition 101 would cut state income taxes to 3.5 percent and would eliminate all state and local taxes and fees on telecommunications services. The proposition defines telecommunications services as including phone, pager, cable, television, radio, internet, computer, and satellite services (although some of these are not even taxed in the first place). State fees that are eliminated include fees that help telephone companies provide access to phone service in rural communities, to the blind, the deaf or speech impaired, and to low-income people.
These measures reflect extreme fiscal irresponsibility. If approved, the proposals would cause a cumulative loss of 73,000 jobs, mainly in transportation, health care, and construction, and lead to a cumulative state and local deficit of $4.2 billion.
Progressives have fought diligently to oppose these "backward-thinking" initiatives. Organizations, such as ProgressNow Colorado, the Colorado Progressive Coalition, the Bell Policy Center, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, and countless others have expressed their opposition. Notably, several conservative lawmakers have also refused to support them. As reported in the Denver Post, 23 of 27 GOP lawmakers in the state House and 5 of 14 GOP state senators have signed a letter stating that these measures are "so far overreaching that it will ultimately kill Colorado jobs and strip local governments' ability to provide police and fire protection and to educate our children."
Current polling indicates that a majority of Coloradans are opposed to these reckless ballot initiatives.
Next week, Missourians will decide on Proposition A, an effort to prohibit the state and local governments from employing an earnings tax, which currently is only utilized in St. Louis and Kansas City. The proposition would require residents of those cities to vote every five years to allow the continued use of the 1 percent earnings tax and, if voters decide to end the tax, it would be phased out over 10 years. Rex Sinquefield, a retired financier and right-wing activist, authored the proposition and has subsequently donated over $10 million to push for its passage.
The earnings tax comprises a substantial portion of both St. Louis' and Kansas City's general fund revenue, 32 and 40 percent respectfully. As the Missouri Budget Projectpoints out, "[e]liminating the earnings tax would devastate the ability of St. Louis and Kansas City to provide public services. These...include police protection, fighting fires, schools, after school programs, street cleaning and...maintenance, services for seniors...and more. This would happen at a time when local budgets are already strapped."
A diverse set of organizations is fighting back against this fiscally irresponsible initiative, including AFSCME, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the Missouri Federation of Teachers, several business interests, and hospitals.
Missourians can ill-afford to approve such a rash proposal at a time of heightened revenue pressures.
Washingtonians will decide on what is likely the most substantial tax reform initiative on the ballot this election season. If approved, Initiative 1098 would institute a statewide income tax of 5 percent on joint filers above $400,000 and 9 percent on filers over $1 million. The state currently does not employ an income tax and in fact, has the most regressive tax structure in the nation, placing a much higher burden on working and middle class families. The lowest 20 percent of earners in the state pay 17.3 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the richest 1 percent contribute only 2.6 percent.
I-1098 would generate $2 billion annually and only impact about 1 percent of the state. In addition to providing the state with greater ability to support education and health care, the initiative will reduce the state property tax by 20 percent and increase the small business tax credit from $420 to $4800, which would provide most of Washington state's small businesses with much-needed tax relief.
As the Progressive States Network has detailed in previous Dispatches, progressive revenue generation, such as modest high-end income tax reform, promotes economic growth, provides necessary funds for public structures, benefits the middle class and small business, and does not cause out-migration of wealthy residents.
A wide array of businesses, progressive organizations, elected officials and notable individuals have come together to support the ballot measure, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, Bill Gates Sr., the Yes on 1098 campaign, and the Washington State & Budget Policy Center.
Simply put, the measure "offers Washingtonians an opportunity to enact important long-term reforms to our state's inadequate revenue structure. The measure would reduce taxes for homeowners and small businesses while providing additional resources for education and health care." The initiatve garnered 42 percent of respondents' support in a recent poll.
Health Care Initiatives: Symbolic Attempts to Obstruct Reform
As Progressive States Network has documented, in the vast majority of states where the right wing has introduced bills to nullify federal health care reform, legislatures have rejected their efforts. Measures backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have failed in at least 28 states, while at the same time almost all 50 states, including many suing the federal government, are moving forward on implementation of the law.
Despite this broad rejection, a handful of constitutionally dubious efforts have resulted in ballot initiatives that will go to the voters this year. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma will decide on largely symbolic measures targeting the individual mandate, while an effort by right-wing legislators in Florida to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot was rejected by a judge due to its "manifestly misleading" language. Despite right-wing intentions to use measures like these as symbolic rallying cries and to motivate turnout nationwide, there is little evidence to indicate that they will succeed in doing so. After Missouri voters approved a nullification ballot proposition in their August primary, the New York Timesreported that the measure "seemed not to capture the general population's attention."
California's Proposition 23: Taking Aim at the Clean Energy Economy
Among the most most watched initiatives in the country is California's Proposition 23, seeking to repeal the state's anti-climate change law (AB 32). The law, the Global Warming Act of 2006, has served as a model for states seeking to cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote a clean energy economy. According to the California Employment Development Department, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created due to the Global Warming Act of 2006 and subsequent policies. Also thanks to the Act, the clean energy market has grown at ten times the average rate of other California industries.
If passed, Proposition 23 would damage California's clean-energy economy and lower unemployment levels by crippling emerging clean energy industries. A study conducted by U.C. Berkeley Law School's Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment concluded that passing the measure would lead to direct job losses.
Behind this damaging initiative are Texas-based companies Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., who are seeking to secure their own profits by perpetuating America's dependence on foreign fossil fuels. According to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Tesoro and Valero are among the largest corporate air polluters in the country. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and theCalifornia Environmental Justice Alliance have also concluded that these oil companies are the two biggest polluters in the state of California.
Anti-Labor Initiatives: Corporate Attacks On Workers' Rights
Ballot measures intended to block implementation of a key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) are set to be voted on in four states: Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. Under the moniker of an organization called "Save Our Secret Ballot" (SOS Ballot) - largely an instrument of major corporations - the initiatives seek to amend state constitutions to mandate that union representation elections are carried out solely through a "secret ballot" voting process. The measures in South Dakota and Utah also apply the requirement more broadly to include mandating secret ballots in state and local government elections.
The ostensible purpose of the SOS Ballot initiatives is to undermine EFCA's so-called "card check" provision, which would grant workers the right to join a union without an election being held if a majority of company employees sign cards authorizing a union to represent them. However, in most of the states where SOS Ballot has attempted to introduce measures, they have either failed to gain enough signatures to qualify, or they have been thrown out as illegitimate. For instance, Arkansas' Attorney General refused to certify an SOS Ballot measure because it was too vague to have a meaningful legal application. From a constitutional standpoint, the initiatives are frivolous and would be federally pre-empted by EFCA should it pass with a card-check provision. However, the main purpose of the initiatives is to further anti-union and anti-EFCA political organizing. Tellingly, all of the initiatives being voted on were introduced legislatively.
Another anti-worker initiative is on the ballot in Georgia. Amendment 1 would strengthen the ability of employers to prevent employees from taking jobs with competing businesses. While framed as a policy to support business by "upholding reasonable competitive agreements," it relates specifically to clauses in employment contracts which workers are required to sign. The measure would authorize greater interference by employers in workers' ability to freely seek work when, how, and where they choose - and thereby exert unfair leverage over employees as a condition of employment.
Election Reform Initiatives: Focus on Redistricting, Clean Elections
State legislatures will be redrawing the boundaries of congressional seats in 2011, a notoriously partisan process that can result in dramatically skewed results. In Texas, for example, Republicans redrew the congressional map in 2003 to give themselves a 2-1 advantage over Democrats, which translated into an additional six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fortunately, ballot initiatives to create or expand independent redistricting commissions are on the ballot in California, Florida, and Oklahoma.
California actually boasts two initiatives, which are making headlines because they directly oppose each other. Proposition 20 would expand the independent redistricting commission that voters approved two years ago by referendum to include congressional districts - groups as diverse as California Common Cause, California Chamber of Commerce, and the California State Conference of the NAACP argue that a nonpartisan commission will end biased gerrymandering and force elected officials to be more accountable to voters. However, rival Proposition 27, supporters of which include U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and AFSCME, would abolish the aforementioned commission. Supporters fear the unpredictability of a commission that is not accountable to the public, and raise concerns about cost as well as the weakening of California's house delegation vis-a-vis other states that do not have similar commissions.
As outside groups continue to pump more money into judicial elections ($206.9 million was spent nationwide between 2000-2009, more than double the previous decade) voters in Nevada will decide whether to replace state Supreme Court elections with a nonpartisan judicial merit selection system, in which a state commission screens three applicants before a final decision is made by the Governor. A review of the appointed judge would be conducted after two years by a separate commission and include input from jurors, attorneys, and staff. The ballot measure, Question 1, is being championed by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who notes, "The kind of merit selection system being proposed in Nevada - now used in two-thirds of states in some form - protects the impartiality of the court without sacrificing accountability... When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law." Nevada was ranked 8th in the nation between 2000 and 2009 for most money raised for Supreme Court elections.
Though public financing significantly reduces the impact of special interest money in elections and allows voters' concerns to be heard above the din of lobbyists and corporations, clean election systems across the country have spent the better part of the year fending off attack. Florida is no exception - voters in the state will determine whether to repeal a law that provides public funding for statewide candidates.
Anti-Reproductive Rights Initiatives: More Restrictions on Women's Health
The restriction of reproductive freedom has long been one of the core issues galvanizing the right. The heaviest hitting of their anti-reproductive health initiatives is the push to define "personhood" in order to give legal rights to embryos and challenge the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade. In Colorado this year, Amendment 62 seeks to give constitutional rights to a fertilized egg. Not only would this mean a constitutional ban on abortion, but also a ban on many forms of birth control and the end to assisted reproductive technology and stem cell research. Other unpredictable impacts of passage may even include criminal investigations against women for their miscarriages. This is the second time that Coloradans will vote on the measure - in 2008, Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected it by a margin of 73 percent to 27 percent. A similar proposal received enough signatures for the Mississippi ballot in 2011; however, it is now the subject of a pre-election court challenge.
Two months ago, Alaska voters approved Proposition 2, which requires that a young woman obtain parental permission 48 hours before obtaining an abortion. The measure did not make any exceptions for a young woman in an abusive home, creating a series of obstacles for young women in this circumstance - they would need to obtain a court order, a signed and notarized statement from a law enforcement officer, or a statement of one of a small qualifying group of family members attesting to personal knowledge of abuse.
Fortunately, reproductive rights advocates have also been successful in defeating anti-choice initiatives in North Dakota and Montana. On balance, voters are standing up for choice, but ultra-right wing measures continue to plague the states, draining resources to defend health care options for women.
Marijuana Reform Initiatives: Drug Policy as a Budget Issue
In California, Proposition 19, which has received national attention, would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana while giving local governments the authority to tax and regulate the drug, simultaneously addressing both the inefficiency of current drug policy and the severity of state and local budget crises. Analysts have noted - and polls have shown - that young and progressive voters are particularly motivated by the intiative, and that measures similar to Proposition 19 may hold potential for increasing voter turnout among those groups nationwide. Voters in other states including Arizona, Oregon, and South Dakota will also decide on ballot measures to legalize and/or regulate medical marijuana.
Anti-Immigrant Initiatives Fail to Qualify for The Ballot
Despite the national media focus on Arizona's anti-immigrant law and subsequent promises by many in other states to pursue copycat efforts, including proposed ballot initiatives, actual voter support for anti-immigrant initiatives this year is almost nonexistent. In two states, proposed initiatives announced with much fanfare failed to even qualify for the ballot. In Nevada, an attempt to gather signatures for an Arizona-style initiative failed in the face of a lawsuit and an effective challenge by a coalition of legislators, Latino organizations, and business leaders to defeat it. In doing so they avoided the economically disastrous fate that has befallen their neighbor since the passage of SB1070. And in Arkansas, the anti-immigrant group Secure Arkansas also failed in their attempt to get even 10,000 signatures to qualify an anti-immigrant proposal for the ballot - a measure which would have simply reiterated existing federal law by seeking to bar undocumented immigrants over the age of 14 from receiving public assistance. The failure of these two efforts underscores the fact that contrary to conventional wisdom, support for draconian anti-immigrant policies like Arizona's is simply not materializing in other states.
States Should Structure Insurance Exchanges to Minimize Adverse Selection - This paper from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends four steps that states should take when setting up state-based exchanges under the new federal health care law to minimize the risk of "adverse selection," which they note could prevent the exchanges from operating effectively and which has been one of the principal reasons that some past state-based exchanges have been unsuccessful.
How to Enact (and Maintain) Tax Reform - Citizens for Tax Justice released this new report providing an overview of why tax expenditures have been so prevalent in state budgets and how the long-term welfare of states can be enhanced by ending these privileges. The report then outlines types of reforms that can serve as a useful starting point for curbing tax expenditures, which would make it easier to enact and maintain meaningful tax reform.
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