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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.

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.