Wages, Property Rights on '06 Ballots
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
If a novel ballot initiative passes in Arizona on Nov. 7, residents after this year would be eligible for a $1 million prize drawing just for voting. But among at least 25 states voting on ballot measures this year, Arizona's list already stands out for packing a pile of pizzazz.
Arizona voters are likely to have the chance to deny benefits to immigrants, ban gay marriage, boost the state minimum wage, ditch polling sites for a vote-by-mail system, among 20 separate measures on a ballot chock-a-block with races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and the Legislature. Not all of its ballot initiatives have been officially certified yet.
Arizona may test whether ballot measures gin up interest in elections, particularly in years without a presidential race. But the test bed is broader than Arizona. Voters in half the country will face more than 100 ballot measures on a range of issues, with gay marriage and increases in the minimum wage expected to be the most closely watched battles of the 2006 elections.
Experts say that Democrats are trying to use the minimum wage in 2006 in the same way conservatives used bans on gay marriage in 2004: to bring voters to the polls to pull the lever not just for their initiative, but also for their candidates. Minimum wage measures are on at least four state ballots (Arizona, Montana, Missouri and Nevada) and petition drives are under way in Colorado and Ohio.
"The progressive groups have taken a page out of the conservatives' playbook," says Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Smith's earlier research has shown that voter turnout tends to be higher in states with initiatives on the ballot during mid-term elections. He says, however, that if Congress ends up hiking the federal minimum shortly before elections, then state campaigns could lose some momentum. The U.S. House last week approved an increase above the current $5.15-an-hour rate, but its fate is uncertain in the Senate.
Conservatives are hoping that another round of same-sex marriage bans on ballots this year will mean more votes cast for other causes, including initiatives on hotly contested issues such as abortion, illegal immigration and state spending limits. Gay marriage bans are on the ballots in seven states: Arizona, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Alabama voters in June became the 20 th state to approve a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Americans favor increasing the federal minimum wage by an overwhelming margin (83 percent to 14 percent), according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this spring. "I can't imagine that Democrats running for statehouses aren't using minimum wage as a major plank in their campaigns," said Smith of the University of Florida.
Republican state lawmakers in Michigan and Arkansas were so wary of having a minimum wage initiative on the ballot that they preemptively raised the rate on their own this year, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , one of the leading groups behind the national, coordinated effort to get minimum wage measures on state ballots. "They didn't want it [the minimum wage ballot initiative] to be a tool that progressives could use for turnout," she said. "The minimum wage is the issue of 2006," she said.
But John G. Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute of the University of Southern California, is skeptical that minimum wage will be the hot question of 2006. "I'm not convinced that minimum wage will get people to charge the hill."
Jennie Bowser, who tracks ballot initiative for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said this year's ballot measures run the gamut, but added, "It's hard to pick out any pattern other than the same-sex marriage bans always pass, with flying colors." NCSL has an online state-by-state data base of initiatives.
Smith of the University of Florida has studied the 2004 elections and concluded that the 11 gay marriage ballot initiatives had little effect on turnout in the 2004 presidential contest. But he said the measures "did have an impact on voters' choice: Bush got more votes."
The nation also will be watching election results in South Dakota. Voters in South Dakota, one of the states with a proposed gay marriage ban, also will decide whether to overturn the nation's strictest ban on abortions enacted by the South Dakota Legislature earlier this year. If the new law stands, it sets the stage for a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave women the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Immigration proposals also are on ballots in two states with both gay marriage and minimum wage measures: Arizona and Colorado. Arizona voters, who two years ago vented their frustration at illegal border crossings by adopting a ballot measure banning most taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal aliens, will consider a new round of restrictions. They will vote on whether to deny illegal immigrants certain adult education and child-care programs and bail for certain crimes, prohibit them from being awarded punitive damages in lawsuits, and declare English the state's official language.
A citizen's initiative in Colorado to deny government services to illegal immigrants was tossed off the ballot by that state's high court, but the Legislature put two other immigration-related measures on the ballot. One asks voters whether the state should bar employers from deducting the wages of illegal immigrants as an expense, and the other would give the state the green light to sue the federal government for failing to enforce federal immigration laws.
Colorado voters may get to vote on as many as four gay marriage proposals. Already on the ballot is a measure that for the first time will let voters decide whether to expand gay rights by creating "domestic partnerships" for same-sex couples, granting them many of the same financial and health benefits reserved for married couples. Signatures also are being collected to put on the ballot three competing measures to prohibit state and local governments from granting gays "a legal status similar to that of marriage," to define domestic partnerships separately from marriage, and to define marriage as a heterosexual union.
Another hot social issue - use of embryonic stem cells — will be taken up in Missouri. Voters will face a measure that seeks to legalize stem cell research, countermanding a bill passed by the Missouri Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Matt Blunt (R) last year that would have criminalized research on stem cells taken from human embryos. The measure doesn't set aside money for the research.
Experts say the possible "sleeper" issue of 2006 may be a backlash against government's ability to seize private property for redevelopment, a power known as "eminent domain." Renewed interest in the issue stems from last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London allowing a local government to take private property solely for economic development. But the justices left it to state courts to decide whether such takings violate state constitutions. The Ohio Supreme Court on July 26 became the first to find that its state Constitution does protect homeowners from private developers.
Voters in at least 10 states (California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oregon and South Carolina) will decide whether to ban the use of eminent domain for private purposes.
California is known for its bevy of ballot measures, and this election is no different. Five measures would authorize the state to borrow a total of nearly $43 billion in bonds for a variety of projects, including highways and roads, water projects and low-income housing. "Voters turned down an initiative to tax millionaires for universal preschool and a $600 million bond measure for libraries in June, so the public's appetite for government spending is not unlimited," said Matsusaka the Initiative and Referendum Institute, "but the fate of these measures will give a barometer on whether big government is coming back."
There is still time in several states for additional ballot proposals to be certified for Nov. 7. Matsusaka anticipates that nationwide at least 150 measures will go before voters. In the last election, voters in 34 states considered 162 measures, he said.
Other issues pending on 2006 ballots:
- Spending limits — Measures in several states to limit state spending, commonly known as TABOR for Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, have been caught in legal challenges, such as in Oklahoma. Spending limit measures will be on the Maine, Montana, Nevada and Oregon ballots and appears headed for voters in Michigan and Nebraska as well once the signatures are certified. In Rhode Island, Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) placed a non-binding spending limit measure on the ballot.
- Affirmative action — Michigan voters will decide whether to prohibit state government from discriminating for or against individuals on the basis of race. The measure is backed by Ward Connerly, who spearheaded a similar initiative (Prop 209) that California voters approved a decade ago.
- Education - An Arkansas measure would make it the 43 rd state to establish a state lottery, with the proceeds going to education. Proposals in Arizona and Colorado will test the popularity of a national advocacy group's attempt to require that at least 65 percent of school funds be spent in the classroom. Education funding measures also are pending in California, Idaho, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma.
- Taxes - Idaho voters will consider a 1 percent sales tax increase to provide more money for schools. Florida lawmakers put on the November ballot a property tax exemption for low-income seniors and a property tax discount for the elderly and disabled war veterans. A Minnesota amendment would require motor vehicle tax revenue to be used for transportation projects.
- Tobacco - A Florida measure would require the state to use tobacco settlement money to educate the public, especially young people, about the dangers of smoking and tobacco use. Missouri and North Dakota proposals would hike tobacco taxes to pay for health care, and Arizona and Nevada have smoking ban measures. California would raise cigarette taxes by $2.60 per pack to fund tobacco awareness and health programs.
- Judicial - A measure in South Dakota would deny judges immunity from lawsuits and create a panel of volunteers to determine the validity of lawsuits against judges. A measure on Montana ballots would extend the recall process to state court justices or judges.