Voters Send Mixed Messages on Ballot Measures

In an election-year marked by anti-tax and anti-government themes, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts went against the tide by rejecting the most sweeping tax-cutting measures to appear on state ballots yesterday. Had they passed, those measures would have cost those states billions of dollars in revenues and blown significant holes in their budgets. 

However, anti-tax sentiment ran strong in Washington State, where voters rebuffed a proposal backed by Bill Gates Sr. that would have given the state its first state income tax, which would have been limited to high wage earners. Voters there also rolled back a new sales tax on candy, bottled water and soda and reinstated requirements that make it harder for state lawmakers to raise taxes and fees.

Fiscal issues, more than social issues, dominated among the 160 ballot measures that voters weighed in on yesterday. Voters approved measures that could both help and hurt their states' bottom lines.  The results are significant because states, a majority of which will have new governors at the helm, are preparing for yet another year of tight budgets and deficits and without the help of the federal stimulus.

Voters in California, one of the most fiscally challenged states in the country, made a big procedural change in the state's budget process. After a couple of years in which the Legislature passed a budget months late, voters approved a measure aimed at making it easier to pass a budget by requiring only a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote. 

But California voters also decided to tie lawmakers' hands in other ways when it comes to passing budgets. Under one measure approved yesterday, any increase in fees will have to be passed with a two-thirds vote. Under another measure that passed yesterday, the state will no longer be able to use local government or transportation funds to help balance the budget. Advocates said the measure was needed because the state raided some $5 billion from various local funds to balance last year's budget. 

Of California's nine ballot measures, seven had fiscal implications. Voters opted not to become the first state to legalize and tax marijuana, a measure that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state. Voters decided not to repeal recently enacted tax breaks, which could have added about $1.3 billion in additional revenue. 

In Indiana, voters decided to enshrine property tax caps in thestate constitution under a measure that easily passed. The caps limit a homeowner's bill to 1 percent of a home's assessed value. But a measure to cut the property tax in half in Colorado was one of a trio there that voters overwhelmingly rejected. The other two measures would have cut income and motor vehicle taxes and would have banned state and local governments from taking on debt without voter approval. Politicians of both parties had lobbied against the three measures, arguing they would have cut too deeply. Had the three measures passed, they would have taken away $2.1 billion of Colorado's revenues, out of a general fund budget of about $7 billion.  

In Massachusetts, voters decided not to roll back a recent sales tax increase. Had that measure passed, it could have doubled the state's projected budget deficit next year to $5 billion. However, voters there did OK a measure that rolls back a new sales tax on alcohol.  

Arizona now has a $450 million budget hole to contend with, as voters rejected two measures that lawmakers were banking on to balance the books. The measures would have taken money from a land-conservation fund and from an early childhood development program and redirected the funds to the state general fund.

And in Florida, voters rejected a measure that would have saved the state money by relaxing limits on class sizes in schools. While the measure received 54 percent of the vote, it wasn't enough to pass since the state requires that measures get at least 60 percent to be approved.

Other key questions

Apart from fiscal issues, voters also answered a number of other key questions yesterday. Californians decided to keep their landmark 2006 law that mandates reductions in greenhouse gases, rather than suspend it until the state's unemployment rate drops.

California also took a step toward taking politics out of redistricting by approving a measure that lets a 14-member commission draw the new lines for U.S. congressional districts lines, rather than the Legislature. Voters rejected a competing measure that would have disbanded the commission voters approved in 2008 for drawing the new lines for state offices. 

Florida voters also approved two ballot measures aimed at taking the politics out of redistricting for congressional and state districts. While the Legislature would still have the job of redrawing new lines in Florida, the measures set out standards that must be followed, such as making the districts contiguous and following existing geographical boundaries when possible.

For the first time in more than a decade, gay marriage was absent from any statewide ballot. However, voters did weigh in on another hot-button issue: the new federal health care law. Voters in Arizona and Oklahoma approved measures that essentially prohibit the government from requiring a person to get health care insurance, a linchpin of the new federal law. Missouri voters likewise approved a similar measure in August. But voters in Colorado rejected a similar measure. Experts question the constitutional validity of these ballot measures, but supporters say voter repudiation sends a clear message to overturn the entire law.  

The only abortion-related measure on the November ballot was in Colorado, where voters once again overwhelmingly rejected amending the state constitution to define "personhood" as beginning at conception. In August, voters in Alaska approved a measure requiring that minors notify their parents before receiving an abortion.

Arizona voters approved a measure banning preferential treatment in public employment, education and contracting. This was the first time an affirmative action measure was put on a statewide ballot by the legislature, not by citizens' initiatives.


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