Tea on the Menu

 

Chris Bass, who is 36 years old, made an early fortune on Wall Street and now lives in Liberty Lake, near Spokane, Washington, where he has chosen another line of work. Bass is promoting nine measures on the November ballot that seek to rein in government power, ranging from invalidating the new federal health care law to lifting government gun controls.

Bass has never filed a state ballot initiative, let alone nine at one time, but like other Tea Party activists, he says he is disillusioned with government and wants to make a change.  

In neighboring Idaho, Alanna Grimm, a stay-at-home mother of four in the small town of Hayden, is going further than Bass. She is circulating 19 initiatives , including several that would nullify what she calls "O'bomenycare," the health care law signed by President Obama that was modeled on one then-Governor Mitt Romney initiated in Massachusetts in 2006. She, too, is a first-time ballot initiator and is acting now "because the government has been intervening in every aspect of our lives."

Anti-tax groups that have been around for years hope the fervor of Bass, Grimm and other Tea Party members will add momentum to their cause of limited government and lower taxes. "This could be an excellent year for voter anger over big government to translate into issue gains, not just gains of one political party or the other," says Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union .

The measures that Tea Party members are advocating or sponsoring are expected to be among about 200 statewide measures of all varieties that will appear on ballots nationwide. Just how many will be directly traceable to Tea Party activism, and how many will simply reflect a similar ideology, will be impossible to measure. What's known for sure is that the National Conference of State Legislatures says that more than 70 measures have already qualified for November and another 21 will appear in primary and special elections, and it's a safe bet that a fair percentage of these, like those in Washington and Idaho, have clear Tea Party origins.

The first big test of Tea Party clout comes next month in Arizona, where several Tea Party groups are rallying against Republican Governor Jan Brewer's bid to temporarily raise the state's 5.6 percent sales tax by 1 point. As Stateline.org reported last month, the Tea Party movement is particularly strong in Arizona and, coupled with voters who are simply tired of taxes, could defeat the governor's ballot measure. The timing of the election — May 18, when no other contests are on the ballot — makes any prediction dicey.

Tea Party activists also could be the wild card in Colorado, where three contentious measures already have qualified for the November ballot, including two that would cut property, income and other taxes by a $1 billion and another — believed to be the first effort of its kind anywhere in the country — that would ban the use of any kind of debt by the state of Colorado without voter approval. "Odds are generally against them passing," says John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. "But the mood is such that you never know."

Colorado, home to the controversial 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) that limits the growth of state revenue, sparked similar initiatives in other states that have generally failed, notably last year in Maine and Washington. Voters in Nebraska and Oregon rejected TABOR- like measures in 2006.

But taxes are not the only issue on which Tea Party activists hope to make a difference. Tea Party enthusiasts in Colorado and Michigan are, like Bass and Grimm, circulating measures that would prohibit the government from requiring a person to get health care insurance, a linchpin of the new federal law. Similar measures were put on the ballot by legislatures in Arizona and Oklahoma, encouraged by the American Legislative Exchange Council , a conservative group that would like to see similar efforts in other states as well.

Elsewhere, the Meridian Tea Party in Mississippi is pushing stricter voter identification requirements while the Faulkner County Tea Party in Arkansas is advocating a measure that would prevent any illegal immigrant over the age of 14 from receiving any public funds, including Medicaid or other public assistance. And in California, Tea Party groups are pushing for a repeal of that state's law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to control global warming.

Liberal groups admit Tea Party influence worries them. "You have a portion of the citizenry that is highly suspicious of government and the role of government in their lives and that has a potential to play a big role in how people vote" on candidates and ballot measures, says Wade Buchanan, president of the progressive Bell Policy Center in Colorado. "It's certainly something that we can't take lightly," he says.

Others wonder if tea partiers' focus on Congress will distract them from ballot measures. "Their anger seems to be directed at elected officials in Washington, D.C., and the overall functioning of government, so how that plays out on local, down-ballot initiatives will depend state to state," says Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , a Washington, D.C., group that describes itself as the nerve center for progressive ballot initiative campaigns.

Some on the right are convinced Tea Party enthusiasm can't help but benefit them. "We call tea partiers reinforcement," says Barbara Anderson, co-founder of Citizens for Limited Taxation , a Massachusetts group that has been around for 36 years. She says her organization supports a bid by Tea Party activists in her state to repeal last year's sales tax increase and make the rate a flat 3 percent. Even so, she admits her primary focus this year is on defeating incumbents, including Democratic Governor Deval Patrick.

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who specializes in state ballot measures, doubts the Tea Party will decide many statewide elections, but he says the movement does pose a risk for Republicans. "It could put Republican candidates in the position to make a tough choice," he says, "on a rather polarizing issue that could alienate moderate Republicans and independents from supporting them."


Katharine Zambon, researcher with the Pew Center on the States, contributed to this report.

 
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