Election 2005: Ballot Items Foreshadow 2006
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
With Hurricane Katrina pushing gas prices to $3 a gallon, Oklahoma voters Tuesday (Sept. 13) overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to raise the state's fuel tax by 5 cents a gallon over three years.
The measure, which about 87 percent of voters opposed, would have raised the state's gasoline tax from 17 cents to 22 cents a gallon to establish a road and bridge repair trust fund.
While Katrina caused gasoline to spike to record prices, the collapse of levees in New Orleans also underscored the importance of maintaining infrastructure. Three years ago, 14 people were killed in Oklahoma when an errant towboat collided with a pier on the Arkansas River, causing the collapse of a 550-foot portion of Interstate 40.
Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads, the backer of the measure, claimed that one-third of Oklahoma's bridges need immediate repairs. But anti-tax groups funneled resources into defeating the gas tax hike.
Oklahoma's election comes in an off-year political season in which eight more states (California, Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Washington) will vote on 39 statewide ballot measures in November on topics ranging from spending limits to redistricting rules, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A budget-cap proposal in California holds high stakes for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger(R).
This year's referendums -- including gas tax measures -- could be harbingers of issues to come on ballots in the busier political year of 2006, when 34 states will elect governors. Just two states -- New Jersey and Virginia -- elect governors this year.
While Oklahoma voted on whether to raise the gasoline tax, Washington state voters are slated to vote in November on repealing a 9.5-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax that the Legislature approved in April. Washington is one of six states with no income tax, and Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) is working with lawmakers to devise a strategy to defeat the initiative.
Injecting a hefty dose of political drama, the Republican governors of California and Colorado are taking dueling positions on ballot initiatives concerning statewide spending caps.
Just days after Colorado residents decide Nov. 1 whether to temporarily suspend portions of that state's landmark Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR), Californians will vote Nov. 8 on an initiative to instill stricter spending limits in the Golden State.
California's Proposition 76 is the crown jewel of a package of initiatives in a special election called by Schwarzenegger after the Legislature failed to act on his proposals to reform the state's budget system. The measure is politically crucial for the governor because he came to office pledging to do a better job than his embattled predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis, in crafting a solution to the state's chronic budget shortfalls. In all, Californians will consider eight ballot measures, more than any other state except Texas.
Proposition 76, which supporters have dubbed the "Live Within Our Means Act," would amend California's Constitution to limit state spending to the previous year's level plus average revenue growth for the three previous years and would empower the governor to reduce spending under certain circumstances.
Schwarzenegger, drawing criticism that he is governing by initiative and trying to wrest power from the Legislature, has stressed the importance of swift action to prevent the repeat of billion-dollar budget shortfalls.
"Without reform, we are destined to relive the past all over again -- $22 billion deficits, higher car taxes and the threat of bankruptcy," Schwarzenegger said in a June 13 address announcing the special election.
Opponents of California's proposal point to Colorado's simultaneous effort to relax its TABOR amendment as evidence that strict spending limits don't work. But supporters of spending limits say TABOR is viable even if Colorado voters choose to temporarily amend it. Colorado's proposal would keep TABOR's spending caps but rescind for five years its mandate to return extra revenue to taxpayers. Colorado's proposal has drawn fire from anti-tax activists nationwide.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R), who once toured the country promoting TABOR, helped broker a legislative deal that put the TABOR suspension on the ballot, placing him in the crosshairs of national anti-tax groups such as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
The Colorado ballot initiative also would mandate spending on infrastructure, health care and higher education.
An effort to place a TABOR-like amendment on the November ballot in Ohio has been sidelined. But backers have gathered the necessary signatures and the tax-and-spend cap proposal almost certainly will appear on the ballot there in 2006. Maine voters also are likely to consider a TABOR amendment next year, and efforts to place similar amendments on the 2006 ballot are gaining ground in Arizona, Nevada and Washington as well, Norquist told Stateline.org.
A measure already on the ballot this year in Washington would increase financial audits of state and local governments, a measure that proponents say will increase government accountability to taxpayers.
The passage of California's spending-limit proposal could hinge on whether Schwarzenegger can successfully fend off attacks from the state's public employee unions.
Schwarzenegger, who also is backing two ballot proposals aimed at limiting the power of the state's labor unions, has seen his popularity plummet in recent months amid strong opposition from public employees.
Proposition 75, described as "paycheck protection" by supporters and "paycheck deception" by opponents, would prohibit state employee unions from using union dues for political purposes without a worker's approval. Proposition 74 would make it more difficult for public school teachers to gain tenure.
Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said Propositions 74 and 75 are part of a nationwide Republican strategy to weaken labor unions, traditionally a strong source of support for the Democratic Party.
"Initiatives are being used as political tools," said Wilfore, whose group supports progressive state ballot measures.
Other initiatives on the November ballot:
- New York will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to shift significant budget-setting authority from the governor to the Legislature. The measure has drawn fire from business groups, which claim it would make it more difficult for the state to deliver its budget on time. New York met its April 1 budget deadline this year for the first time in two decades.
- California and Ohio will attempt to join 12 states in taking legislative redistricting out of the hands of state lawmakers. Ohio's proposal is among three proposed constitutional amendments that aim to reform Ohio's elections. Besides overhauling Ohio's redistricting process, another measure would establish an independent elections board and allow early voting in all elections, and a third would place new limits on campaign contributions.
- Two competing California proposals are aimed at providing prescription drug discounts to low-income residents. Drug companies back one of the proposals and oppose the other.
- A Maine proposal would repeal a recently passed law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- Texas, in an effort to outlaw same-sex unions, will vote on proposal that would prevent the creation of any legal status similar to marriage.
- A proposed constitutional amendment in California would require a physician to notify a minor's parent or guardian before performing an abortion.
Kansas and West Virginia already held statewide referendums this year. Kansans in April joined voters in 17 other states in amending its Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. In June, West Virginia voters rejected a proposal that would have allowed the state to issue bonds to shore up its retirement system for teachers.