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State Ballot Measures: 11 Hot Topics in 2012's Other Electoral Frontline

From raising taxes and legalizing pot to reviving labor rights, voters in 37 states will be busy.
 
 
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There’s more at stake in the November election than who will sit in the White House next year. Voters in 37 states with ballot initiatives and legislative referenda will vote on 174 different proposals that range from overturning anti-union laws passed by Republican legislatures, to tax measures to fund education, to legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, to upholding gay marriage, to ending the death penalty and labeling food with genetically modified ingredients.

Those are just some of the topics that will come before voters this fall, with 50 of them drafted by interest groups on the political left and right that filed qualifying petitions. Here's a rundown on the hottest topics on the state political frontlines.

1. Taxes

There are more tax questions on November ballots than any other topic—31 in all. The most visible are revenue-raising measures that are testing the political waters to see if voters have had enough with years of cuts to schools and other needed state services.

California leads the way with two of the most controversial measures. Proposition 30, sponsored by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, raises income taxes for earnings above $250,000 and the state sales tax by 0.25 percent for several years, in order to prevent further cuts to schools and other services. The second, Proposition 38, is sponsored by education advocates and raises state income taxes and dedicates 60 percent of revenue to schools. In Arizona and South Dakota, tax hikes also would be dedicated to schools, while a Missouri measure would raise tobacco taxes for health education.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are anti-tax measures that could impose severe revenue-raising restraints. In Washington, I-1185 would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes. In Michigan, Proposal 5 would require a two-thirds vote of the legislature or voters to raise taxes. In Illinois, a two-thirds legislative majority would be required to increase pension benefits for public employees.

Anti-tax, pro-business activists are behind the Washington and Michigan proposals. The Washington proposal has already been called unconstitutional by its Democratic Party critics, which its sponsors are ignoring even though the Seattle Times has reported that it almost certainly would be overturned in court, should it win in November. Public employee unions in Illinois have criticized that proposal, saying legislators have underfunded pensions for years and this is no way to fix that problem.

2. Labor Unions

Like the Illinois pension proposal, there are other anti-union measures on state ballots. California’s Proposition 32 puts a proposal defeated in 1998 and 2005 back on the ballot. It would prohibit union dues from being used for political purposes without an individual member’s approval and would ban government contractors from donating to campaigns. It is a transparent attack on public employee unions, most notably teachers and nurses. The proposal has been “kicking around” as model legislation from the pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, since 1998, PR Watch reports, noting that it returned to California last year after the right’s successfully passed anti-union legislation in Wisconsin last year. Its backers—including many groups that cheered after the Supreme Court further deregulated campaign spending in Citizens United decision and went on to spend millions in the 2012 campaign—see no hypocrisy in trying to suppress union political speech while spending freely themselves.

On the side of restoring union rights, Idaho teachers put three measures on the fall ballot: one to repeal a law limiting previously negotiated union contracts; another to repeal a new law tying teacher pay to student test scores; and a third that would repeal a law changing school funding formulas and requiring schools to provide computers and online courses. The Idaho Education Association backed these proposals. South Dakotans also will consider repealing a new law that rates teachers and removed tenure, another of the anti-education bills passed by GOP-controlled legislatures after 2010 that teachers say punishes them while doing little to improve schools. Michigan voters also will be asked to restore collective bargaining rights for all unionized employees, whether state employees or in the private sector.   

3. Democracy Issues

There are a range of democracy issues, starting in Michigan with repealing emergency powers legislation that the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed enabling it to allow local governments—such as the city of Detroit—to revoke and rewrite existing contracts, including wages and benefits. The state’s GOP has delighted in taking over traditionally Democratic-run cities and revising wage, benefit and pension contracts, canceling projects and other contracted obligations, which has been called blatantly illegal under different provisions of the Michigan and U.S. constitutions.

Conservatives in two longtime Democratic-majority states—California and Maryland—are asking voters to repeal new redistricting commissions, which draw state and federal districts lines after the once-a-decade federal Census. They were unhappy that these citizen commissions did not do more to increase the GOP’s chances of regaining the political majority. In Ohio, a Democratic-backed measure would create a bipartisan redistricting commission, a response to that state’s GOP-dominated process last year.

On the campaign finance reform front, Colorado and Montana will ask voters different questions related to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that deregulated spending and has led to 2012’s million-dollar donors and political ad wars. Colorado’s Amendment 65 would instruct the Legislature to send a message to Congress instructing it to draft a constitutional amendment that would allow it to again regulate campaign cash. Montana’s I-166 would declare that corporations do not have constitutional rights, which is intended to allow it to restore some of its recently overturned campaign finance laws.

4. Gay Marriage

Same-sex marriage has been on state ballots for nearly a decade— 30 out of 31 measures banning gay marriage have been approved by voters, including Californians. In contrast, same-sex marriage victories consistently have come from the courts or legislatures. This fall, four states will vote on marriage-related propositions.

In Maine’s Question 1 and in Maryland’s Question 6, both put on the ballot by petitions, voters will be asked to legalize same-sex marriage by repealing prior laws that banned it. In Washington, opponents are asking voters to approve or repeal a new law that legalized gay marriage. And Minnesota voters will vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (This May, North Carolina voters passed such a ban.)

5. Marijuana

Marijuana legalization measures are on the ballot in six states, including the first southern state to vote on it. The most liberal measures, legalizing it for recreational use, are on the ballot in Colorado (Amendment 64), Oregon (Measure 80) and in Washington (I-502). Polls taken this summer have shown the Colorado and Washington measures with more support than opposition.

Three states have medical marijuana measures. In Montana, IR-124 would reverse recent legislation that rolled back big parts of the state’s medical marijuana law passed in 2004. Question 3 in Massachusetts would allow medical marijuana use. And Arkansas’ Issue 5 would allow medical use—the first time the issue has come up in the South.

6. Obamacare

After the Affordable Care Act became law, four states passed ballot measures saying no individual or business would be forced to participate in a healthcare system (Arizona, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma). Colorado’s voters rejected a similar statement. This November, voters in four more states will vote on similar measures (Alabama, Florida, Montana and Wyoming). These votes are seen as symbolic, because health officials in most states have been quietly planning to implement the law, according to news reports, particularly after the Supreme Court upheld the law this past June.

7. Illegal Immigrants

Anti-immigrant sentiments are behind two measures on opposite sides of the country. In Maryland, conservatives are behind Question 4, which would repeal 2011 legislation that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities, if they attended high school in Maryland and their parents paid taxes. In Montana, LR-121 is a legislature-sponsored measure that would deny state services to illegal immigrants. It requires individuals who apply for state welfare benefits or student loans at state universities to present proof of citizenship.

All of these topics—taxes, unions, democracy issues, marriage, pot, Obamacare, illegal immigrants—are on the ballot in more than one state. But there also are a handful of single-state issues that are important and could make waves beyond their borders.

8. Affirmative Action
Oklahoma’s State Question 759, put on the ballot by legislators, would prohibit any discrimination or preferable treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity and national origin. It is designed to undermine state affirmative action programs and is part of a trend that can be seen in other South-Central states, such as Texas and Kansas, which have passed tougher voter ID laws in response to growing minority populations. The common thread in all these steps is trying to preserve the white governing class’ power.

9. Death Penalty

California’s Proposition 34 would abolish capital punishment. The measure would also be retroactive, commuting the sentence of all condemned prisoners to life without the possibility of parole. It would also create a $100 million fund to investigate unsolved murders. California and 32 other states now have the death penalty.

10. Assisted Suicide

Massachusetts’ Question 2 is an initiative that would allow a terminally ill person to be given a lethal injection. To date, there have been five state votes on "death with dignity" questions. Washington first rejected it in 1991 but approved it in 2008. California and Michigan voters rejected it in the 1990s. But Oregon passed it in 1994.

11. Food Labeling

California’s Proposition 37 would require that food labels disclose if any ingredients come from genetically altered products. There have been a number of labeling laws passed by smaller states and cities in recent years—over milk hormones, cell phone radiation—as well as a new congressional tobacco labeling law. All have ended in litigation before federal judges who have been hostile to public health labeling. The California measure, if successful, would again make this a national issue.  

But just as California’s food labeling proposal could face an uphill legal fight if it passes, so too could many of the right-wing proposals that conflict with state constitutions—such as the Washington measure requiring a legislative super-majority to raise taxes. Indeed, many ballot measures are at the cutting edge of the political arena, meaning that even if they are approved by voters—which is by no means certain—they could very well be challenged in court and thrown out by judges.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).