Forest of Ballot Initiatives Being Readied For November
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
It has been called "Taxachusetts" and the "People's Republic of Massachusetts" because of its tax burden, which in 1998 was third highest in the nation. But with three tax-cutting initiatives expected to be on the November ballot - including one that would trim the state personal income tax from 5.85 to 5 percent - Massachusetts may soon take action to shed its tax-happy reputation.
Across the United States, ballot initiatives--proposed laws submitted to a vote of the people--are an increasingly popular method of public policy making. In November, between 60 and 70 initiatives covering everything from video poker to gay rights, are expected to appear on the ballots of the 24 states that currently allow for these measures.
According to Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a non-partisan but conservative-leaning research group, initiatives typically deal with "emotional subjects like affirmative action, partial birth abortion, the environment--controversial issues that state legislatures have failed to address."
Waters predicts that this year's hot button issue will be drug policy, with nine or more measures expected to appear on ballots across the country. Another hot button issue will be school vouchers, which are being pushed by well-financed efforts in California and Michigan. Seemingly perennial tax-cutting measures will also abound, he said.
The deadline for gathering the needed number of signatures to place an initiative on the ballot has passed in most states, but the final stages of the process -- verification of the signatures and certification of the initiatives -- is still underway in many cases.
Most of the drug measures concern legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes--though some Alaskans have gone so far as to propose an initiative that would shield adults from prosecution for the use of marijuana for any purpose.
In past elections, voters in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana laws. In early June, Hawaii became the first state to use legislation to approve the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Voters in California and Massachusetts will likely see ballot measures that would mandate alternative sentencing--such as rehabilitation instead of prison--for nonviolent drug offenders. Arizona voters passed a similar measure in 1996.
The school voucher movements in Michigan and California figure to be among the more high profile of this fall's ballot battles.
In Michigan, Rich DeVos, co-founder of Amway, and his wife Helen are leading the charge to reform Michigan's public schools by mandating higher per-pupil funding, teacher testing and $3,100 school vouchers to be given to families in school districts that do not graduate at least two-thirds of entering students. Timothy Draper, a venture capitalist who made millions on Internet investments, is behind an initiative in California calling for $4,000 school vouchers to pay for any student's private school education.
In both states, the chief opposition to the voucher initiatives will come from teachers' unions and school administrators. The state of Washington is expected to join Massachusetts with tax cutting initiatives in November. Watch salesman Tim Eyman recently submitted signatures for Initiative 722, or the "Son of I-695," which would limit annual property tax increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
I-722 has been dubbed the "Son of I-695" because Eyman, its chief architect, was also the main figure behind last fall's Initiative 695, which eliminated Washington's car tax and replaced it with a $30 registration fee. Though aspects of I-695 were later ruled unconstitutional in a King County court, Washington lawmakers read the political tea leaves and cut the car fee to $30 anyway. The resulting $750 million budget shortfall left lawmakers scrambling for spending cuts throughout their legislative session. Eyman's I-722 could have similarly slimming effects on the state's coffers.
Arizona's ballot may also carry a tax initiative --The Taxpayer Protection Act --which proposes to abolish the state income tax and subject all future tax increases to a vote of the people. Supporters have submitted over 230,000 signatures--80,000 more than the required minimum--and are awaiting final ballot approval. Analysts predict the Act would reduce state revenue by 48 percent. Arizona leaders are preparing for a brutal fight should the initiative make the ballot.
Just below the national radar screen lurk a few of this year's more colorful ballot initiatives.
Though rendered unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, Alabama's ban of interracial marriages can still be found in the state constitution. A measure that would repeal the ban will be on Alabama's ballot this fall. A 1998 poll found that 63 percent Alabama voters would support such a move. A similar measure was passed by 62 percent of South Carolina voters in 1998.
Oklahomans will decide on a ballot question that would amend the state constitution to allow Oklahoma wineries to sell their wine directly to retail package stores and restaurants in the state. At present, Oklahoma wineries may sell their wine only to consumers at the winery or to wholesalers. Though few people realize it, Oklahoma has enjoyed a thriving wine industry dating back to 1848, with annual sales exceeding $220 million.
One unique measure proposed in the state of Washington, Initiative 740, declares that "half of the planet's oxygen has been depleted since 1850 and that oxygen is the most important product to come from trees. Therefore, this measure would require that all trees growing and producing oxygen on publicly owned lands be forever preserved to supply voters with essential life-sustaining oxygen."
The measure's sponsor, Kurt Weinreich, has proposed four other initiatives as well, including one that would allow anyone, not just bar members, to practice law in the state. While Weinreich doesn't expect any of his proposals to make the ballot this year, he says he hopes to use his web site to gather signatures for the dozen or so initiatives he plans to propose next year.
Since 1898, when South Dakota became the first state to adopt the initiative and referendum process, ballot initiatives have been instrumental in giving women the right to vote, legalizing physician-assisted suicide, denying public funding of abortions, and allowing for the sale of yellow margarine.
While proponents laud the initiative process for the power it gives to ordinary citizens, critics charge that the process has allowed representative democracy to be co-opted by special interests and big money.
In an interview with Stateline.org in May, Washington Post political writer David Broder, the author of Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, said the initiative process as it now exists has become an anti-democratic alternative form of government.
Broder pointed to Washington state's Eyman as an example of someone who "has not spent one day on the public payroll, and yet is driving decisions about the future of Washington state probably more powerfully now than any elected official or group of elected officials in the state."
In Democracy Derailed, Broder writes that ballot initiatives have become a lucrative business for signature-collectors, lawyers, campaign consultants and media spinners.
"I think reporters need to begin to think about this whole initiative process, the way in which (it is often) financed and the lack of any effective limits on either contributions or spending on the initiatives," he said in the interview. Broder added that while voters assume an initiative is on the ballot "because some other citizen thought this was a good idea," the proposals are often driven by groups and individuals "who are not even residents of the states whose laws or constitutions they are rewriting through the initiative process."