Wages, Gay Marriage Could Tilt '06 Ballots
By Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
Prohibiting gay marriage and boosting the minimum wage are expected to be the most common election questions on state ballots come November, and their inclusion could influence gubernatorial races around the country.
Voters in at least seven states will decide in 2006 whether to join the 19 states that have banned same-sex marriage in their constitutions. Although eight states may vote on increasing the minimum wage, only one, Nevada, so far has committed to placing the issue on its ballot. Eighteen states have set the wage above the federal level of $5.15 an hour.
Questions may be added to a ballot by a state legislature or through a citizen-led campaign that requires backers to gather tens of thousands of signatures. Twenty-four states, mostly in the Western half of the country, allow private citizens to place statutes or constitutional amendments on the ballot through petition. In these states, there are now more than 400 distinct initiative drives under way with deadlines to file approaching in the next few months, said Oliver Griswold, spokesman for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.
Just last week in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) saw his re-election chances put in jeopardy when his plan to put a $68 billion bond proposal on the June ballot failed to get the necessary votes in the Legislature. It remains uncertain whether Schwarzenegger's ambitious proposal to borrow money to revitalize state roads, schools and levees will appear on the ballot in November when he is up for re-election.
Meanwhile, competing conservative and liberal groups are rushing to beat the clock on gay marriage and minimum wage initiatives in many states, and it may not be known for months which make the ballot. Voters in Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin will vote on banning same-sex marriage this year, and there are citizen-led campaigns seeking votes on this issue in Arizona, Colorado and Illinois.
"There is still a lot of strength behind the movement to protect marriage in the states," said Greg DiNapoli, the director of state and local affairs for the conservative Family Research Council.
Nevada will feature a minimum-wage ballot initiative, and strong campaigns seeking a vote on raising wages are under way in Arizona, Michigan, Montana and Ohio, said Elizabeth Garrett , a director at the independent Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
Liberal groups, such as the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , have chosen minimum wage as their banner issue. Conservative organizations, such as the Family Research Council, remain focused on banning same-sex marriage. Both issues have the potential to impact elections. A controversial ballot initiative can create a wedge that drives voters off the fence and into a candidate's camp, while boosting turnout among sympathetic voters.
"It shows, contrary to what people believe, ballot initiatives can be used by liberal and conservative groups," Garrett said.
With 36 governors' races in November 2006, ballot initiatives take on even greater importance for state politicians. A successful ballot campaign can "box a candidate into a corner" over an issue, said Todd Donovan , who teaches political science at Western Washington University.
For instance, Donovan said, a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in Ohio helped President George W. Bush capture the state in the 2004 presidential campaign. Six of the seven states considering a gay marriage ban this year also have a governor's race: Alabama, Idaho, South Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Unlike the others, Alabama will vote on the issue during its June primary, when Gov. Bob Riley (R) faces popular conservative Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice who lost his post after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments display from a state courthouse.
Minimum wage also could play a factor in governor's races, particularly in Arizona and Ohio, where Democratic candidates might gain an added boost if the minimum wage measures draw out more progressive-minded voters.
But minimum wage and gay marriage are only two of the many ballot initiatives that state voters are likely to face in 2006.
In Arizona, voters will decide whether to change the state Constitution to deny bail to illegal immigrants arrested for serious crimes. Florida will vote on an initiative that would require the state to spend millions to educate against smoking. And Colorado will vote on a measure to lower the requirements to qualify ballot initiatives in elections.
Colorado also could be a battleground for a number of hot-button issues. In addition to a possible vote on gay marriage, it may be one of the only states to consider cutting off social programs for illegal immigrants. Arizona voters passed a similar law in 2004, but advocates have had difficulty trying to get similar initiatives on the ballots of other states.
Besides Alabama's vote on gay marriage on June 6, at least three other states will consider ballot measures before November. Alaska will vote Aug. 22 on whether to tax cruise ship passengers and on limiting campaign contributions; California will vote June 6 on whether to tax high-income residents to fund preschool education; and North Dakota will vote June 13 on changing state business regulations and revising obsolete language referring to gender and age requirements in the National Guard.
Other ballot initiatives also are in the works, including:
Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR): Popular among conservatives, TABOR caps state spending by tying the budget to inflation and population growth; any extra money is returned to the taxpayer. Colorado is the only state to have passed such a strict spending law. It's been on the books since 1992, but voters decided in 2005 to suspend the restriction for five years to free up state spending.
Maine and Ohio voters will vote on TABOR this year, and there are efforts to add spending cap questions to the ballot in Nevada, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon, said Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform . "You only get reform of government when you tell them they can't have any more money," he said. Critics of the spending caps argue the measures are too restrictive and hurt government service.
65 percent education solution: This ballot initiative would mandate that 65 percent of state education dollars be spent in the classroom, rather than on administrative costs. A relatively new movement, the 65 percent campaign is being pushed by First Class Education and Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com.
Three states have 65 percent laws — Georgia, Louisiana and Texas — and Kansas legislators have made it a goal, said Tim Mooney, spokesman for First Class Education. Supporters have turned in signatures to put the measure on the ballot in Colorado, and citizen-led efforts are under way in Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon. Legislators in Missouri and Florida also are considering putting the initiative on the ballot. Critics of 65 percent laws argue they are too restrictive and cut out support staff such as nurses and guidance counselors.
Eminent domain: After the Supreme Court last summer OK'd the government's use of eminent domain powers to condemn private land for private redeveloment, small-government advocates pushed back, campaigning for broader protection for property owners. There are initiative drives in at least a half-dozen states that would institute two types of changes: prohibit government from taking private land for private economic development, and force the government to pay landowners if new laws devalue the price of their land, according to Americans for Limited Government . Liberal groups have decried the second measure, arguing it would favor developers and derail attempts to limit urban sprawl.
In Oklahoma, advocates have gathered enough signatures to put both eminent domain issues on the ballot; it is currently under court review. Michigan voters will decide in November whether to outlaw the use of eminent domain for private purposes. Currently, seven states limit the taking of private land for economic development purposes, and at least one, Oregon, forces the government to pay property owners for land-use changes or exempt them from the switch.