Florida Launches 2008 Ballot Question Season

The 2008 Ballot

(Updated Jan. 30, 8:02 a.m.)

When Floridians went to the polls Jan. 29 to vote in the presidential primary, they also endorsed a controversial measure that aims to slash property taxes by $12.4 billion and boost the state's flagging real estate market. The question is the first of a long list of ballot measures voters across the country are expected to consider this election year.

From initiatives limiting abortions to those guaranteeing workers get paid sick leave, both parties are expected to use ballot measures to pull in the votes of loyalists who might not otherwise turn out for the candidates.

The Florida ballot measure is the first salvo of the year in making property rights and anti-tax issues a part of the 2008 conversation," said Oliver Griswold, a spokesman for the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.

Most of the 2008 ballot measures will be decided Nov. 5, when voters in 11 states elect governors and the nation selects the next occupant of the White House. But over the next week, voters in Florida and California will consider high-stakes measures during their presidential primaries that could influence efforts under way in other states.

Florida voters' endorsement of the property tax measure comes at a time when the faltering housing market has property owners clamoring for relief and is a victory for Republican Gov. Charlie Crist who campaigned extensively for its passage.

The Florida measure will revamp the state's property tax system, slashing taxes by $12.4 billion by giving businesses a new $25,000 tax exemption, increasing the current $25,000 "homestead" exemption for homeowners and allowing many property owners to transfer a lucrative tax break when they move. The measure won by a 64 percent to 35.9 percent margin.

Elsewhere, ballot measures to cut property taxes are percolating in Arizona, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Billions of dollars in state revenue and state lawmakers' jobs are at stake in seven measures that Californians will consider when they go to the polls Feb. 5 on "Super-Duper Tuesday" when voters in 23 states express their preferences for president.

Californians will decide whether to:

  • Reduce to 12 years from 14 years the time one can serve in the state Legislature;
  • Increase funding for community colleges; and
  • Repeal deals Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) negotiated with four American Indian tribes that would pay the state more than $130 million each year.

Experts caution that it's early to predict the types of measures that will ultimately appear on Nov. 5 general election ballots because drives are time-consuming, costly and fraught with legal hurdles. But advocates on both sides are already thinking about ways to replicate past success. Liberal groups, for example, used minimum wage hikes as a way to energize their voters in 2006, in the same way conservatives used bans on gay marriage in 2004 and 2006.

Griswold of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center said "wedge issues are flying fast and furious" because conservatives are unenthusiastic about the GOP presidential candidates and instead will turn to anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, anti-affirmative action and anti-tax measures to get their supporters to the polls. "These people need a reason to get their base out to vote."

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, founder of the Americans for Tax Reform, predicts both presidential campaigns will champion ballot measures that put their opponents on the defensive. He expects anti-union measures to be in the works in Ohio and Michigan - presidential swing states and union strongholds - to force organized labor to spend time and money to defeat the initiatives. Conversely, he expects organized labor will circulate environmental or health care measures "to suck up business groups' money." He added, "It's nice to win, but it's more important to throw a bowling ball on the other team's feet."

Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, however, said it is difficult for advocates to plot strategies until the parties select their nominees for president. "Will affirmative action be a real wedge-driver if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee or it's Barack Obama? I think it plays very differently."


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