Spending Limits, Gambling Top Fiscal 2009 Ballot Measures

Source: The National Conference of State Legislatures and Stateline.org reporting

The national spotlight may be focused Nov. 3 on elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, but voters elsewhere could take action to profoundly change the way their states get and spend taxpayers' money.

Maine and Washington will take up measures that could breathe new life into anti-tax crusades to use the ballot box to rein in state spending - a campaign that has fizzled in several states in recent years.

Meanwhile, Ohioans will decide for the fifth time whether to approve casino gambling, and property tax measures are on tap in Texas.

The ballot questions come at a time when most state budgets are bleeding red ink even with an infusion of nearly $53 billion in federal stimulus dollars through the end of September 2009. The election also is the first major one since last November when Democrats took control of the White House, Congress and a majority of governor's seats and state legislative chambers. Both parties hope victories this November will provide momentum for next year's 37 contests for governor and state legislative races in 46 states.

The Maine and Washington measures that would cap increases in state spending and require voter approval for certain tax hikes are drawing particular interest. The results of those votes, both sides say, could influence strategies for the 2010 campaigns.

Joshua M. Culling, state government affairs manager for the National Taxpayers Union, said these revenue limit measures reflect a growing backlash against the Obama administration's spending that has fueled many of the "Tea Party protests.

"If these measures pass - and keep in mind these are two blue states - there will be clear implications for 2010. Politicians who support big government seriously risk losing their seats next November," Culling said. The group advocates for limited government and has compiled a voters' guide on the fiscal 2009 ballot measures.

The measures in Maine and Washington are modeled after Colorado's landmark Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). Coloradoans voted in 2005 to relax for five years their strictest-in the-nation spending cap, foregoing tax refunds that TABOR would have provided. Voters heeded arguments that the limits were cutting too deeply into education, transportation and other programs. Last year, voters there rejected a proposal to permanently repeal TABOR and the groundbreaking limits in the law will go back into effect July 1, 2010.

Some 14 states are poised to go forward in 2010 with tax restriction measures and defeats of the TABOR-like measures in Maine and Washington "would be monumental," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which pushes progressive ballot initiative campaigns and follows measures in all 50 states .

Maine voters rejected a similar initiative in 2006, as did voters in Nebraska and Oregon. Measures were thrown off ballots the same year in Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Oklahoma, primarily because of unverifiable signatures.

Proponents say the limits would stop wasteful spending and provide tax relief. J. Scott Moody, an economist with the Maine Heritage Policy Center , said voters in Maine have $300 million in a reason to approve the measure: That is amount the state increased taxes in the same three years that voters there rejected earlier TABOR measures. "The vast majority of the recent tax increases, under the new Taxpayer Bill of Rights, would have required voter approval," Moody said in a recent article.

Tim Eyman, a conservative political activist who sponsored the Washington spending limit measure, told The Capitol Record that state politicians need limits on what they can charge taxpayers. "It's like taking a kid into Toys 'R' Us - they walk in there and just want it all. Voters need to take on almost a parenting role to say, `You need to realize that we can't afford everything.'" Eyman has introduced at least a dozen ballot measures in the state since 1998, most of them to curb taxes and fees.

Opponents of TABOR-like measures argue that they would force cuts to education, roads and highways, health care and other key services that support states' economies.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) said her state "won't come out of this recession" if voters pass the initiative that she said would "devastate the state of Washington," seattlepi.com reported .

"Maine's voters rejected TABOR the last time it was on the ballot. It's still the same bad idea, and adopting it during a recession would make its harmful effects even worse. Voters should reject it again," Christopher St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said in a joint statement with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Iris J. Lav, senior advisor to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities , said TABOR has harmed Colorado and reduced quality of life there and similar measures "would impose crippling and arbitrary spending limits that would undermine public services."

In other high-profile fiscal measures, Ohio voters will decide yet again whether to allow casinos. The proposal would allow full-service casinos to be built in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. A 2008 proposal to allow a single casino was trounced with 33 percent of the vote, and other similar unsuccessful measures date back to 1990.

Gov. Ted Strickland (D), a United Methodist minister, had long opposed the expansion of gambling in his state, but struggling with the impact of the recession this year, he backed a proposal to allow 2,500 video slot machines at each of Ohio's seven horse tracks to balance the budget without a tax hike. But that slots plan is on hold after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the proposal is subject to a referendum, probably in 2010.

Texas, which has the most measures on the ballot with 10, has three property tax questions, including one aimed at preventing the assessment of a residential property as though it were commercial property as a way to get more taxes.

Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks ballot measures for the National Conference of State Legislatures , said this year's crop of 26 is smaller than the typical 33 or so measures that have occurred in an odd-year general election for the last decade.

In addition to the familiar tax measures, Bowser said voters will take up some of the same high-profile issues that have dominated state ballots for the past several years, including measures to reverse recently enacted same-sex marriage laws in Maine and Washington state. Click here to access NCSL's database of ballot measures going back to 1902.

Related stories:

Scandals, social issues headline 2009 governors races (9/8/2009)

2009 elections - small but significant (1/22/2009)

GOP looks to rebound in 2010 govs' races (2/4/2009) commentary

2007 election: Lessons learned (11/8/2007)

S.D. abortion ban, Ariz. gay marriage ban fail (11/8/2006)

Anti-tax ballot box revolt stifled (10/18/2006)

Few in Northwest neutral on Eyman initiatives (8/5/2004)


Related Stories