Social, energy issues top state ballot measures

by Kristen Gerencher, MarketWatch

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — For many voters, picking the next U.S. president on Election Day may be the easy part. It’s the long, complicated list of state and local ballot initiatives that may detain them in the voting booth.

Thirty-six states have statewide ballot measures this year, amounting to 84 legislative referenda and 59 citizen initiatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thirty-six states have statewide ballot measures this year, amounting to 84 legislative referenda and 59 citizen initiatives.

That’s down from 76 citizen initiatives that appeared in 2006, the second highest number of any year since the initiative process began in the early 1900s, said Jennie Drage Bowser, senior elections analyst for the NCSL in Denver.

While there’s no overriding theme this year, among the issues voters will face are restrictions on abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage and affirmative action; proposals to expand gambling and lotteries; and tax and revenue measures.
At 14, Colorado leads the pack with the most total ballot measures this year, with California and Oregon close behind with 12 questions in each state. New Mexico has nine, Arizona has eight and South Dakota and Louisiana each list seven statewide questions on their ballots.

Some of them may look familiar.

"There are quite a few repeat measures this year," Bowser said. "Oregon considered the same exact tax cut in 2000 and it failed. Massachusetts considered getting rid of the income tax in 2002 and it failed."

Energy in the spotlight

Transportation, energy and environmental protection issues appear to be a growing part of the voting process. Three states address renewable energy on their ballots, a category that’s likely to grow in coming years, Bowser said.

A proposition in Missouri would require investor-owned utilities to produce or buy 15% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. In Colorado, a measure would increase taxes paid by the oil and gas industry and distribute 10% of the new revenue to programs promoting energy efficiency and renewable sources.

Two controversial initiatives in California are drawing attention. One of them, Proposition 10, was bankrolled by Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a company that provides natural gas to vehicles and was founded by Texas oil billionaire and investor T. Boone Pickens.

Prop. 10 would allow the state to sell $5 billion in bonds for various renewable energy and air-emissions reduction purposes. It would issue rebates to buyers of certain high fuel economy and alternative-fuel vehicles.

The measure is poorly written and attempts to distort the market in favor of natural-gas products that help the business interests of the people sponsoring the measure, said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California in San Mateo.

"It’s not as if California does not have clean-vehicle programs up and running. We do," he said. "What Proposition 10 did was reinvent the wheel and made it square instead of round."

California air regulators recently started a more stringent program than the one proposed in Proposition 10 that allows truck drivers to apply for subsidies to buy clean trucks, he said. The subsidies aren’t guaranteed, and truckers must turn in their polluting trucks to qualify. Those who receive money from the state are required to install a tracking device so drivers who take their vehicles out of state too often can be fined, Holober said.

Proposition 10 would allow drivers to buy and register trucks in California without destroying their old, dirty trucks, and they could permanently relocate to another state without penalty, he said. "There’s nothing in the proposition to require these dollars are used in California for the benefit of our air or our residents."

The Consumer Federation of California and other opponents also object to the use of bonds not intended for capital improvements.

"Bonds are for building schools and bridges that will last many years while you pay for the bonds," Holober said. "We should not be using bonds to pay for consumables that are consumed by private corporations."

Separately, a ballot initiative in Washington would standardize the definition of carpool lanes and require cities and counties to synchronize the traffic lights on heavily-traveled streets to improve traffic flow.

Health and social issues

The legality of gay marriage is on the ballots in Florida, California and Arizona this year.

Golden State voters are set to vote on Proposition 8, which would change the state’s constitution to specify that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid in California. It would override a close ruling from the California Supreme Court in May that found the state’s ban on gay marriage to be discriminatory. If the measure passes, same-sex couples would no longer be able to wed in California, barring more legal challenges.

A proposal to broaden stem-cell research is on the ballot in Michigan while Washingtonians will decide on a "Death with Dignity" proposal that would allow some terminally ill, competent adults to obtain lethal prescriptions.

An initiative in Arizona, Proposition 101, appears aimed at preventing a statewide health reform effort similar to what Massachusetts put in place to address its problems with affordable health insurance in 2006. The measure would amend the state constitution to ensure that no law can "restrict a person’s freedom to choose a private health-care plan or system of their choice; interfere with a person’s or entity’s right to pay directly for lawful medical services; or impose a penalty or fine, of any type, for choosing to obtain or decline health-care coverage."

Massachusetts takes a shared-responsibility approach that requires individuals to buy health insurance or face tax penalties. Those who can’t afford it can buy a subsidized plan through a health-insurance exchange, which also sets minimum coverage standards. Employers that don’t offer health insurance to their workers must pay a small fee into a fund.

Abortion-related issues are making a comeback this year. In Colorado, Amendment 48 seeks to give fetuses the same rights as people by amending the state constitution to define the term "person" to "include any human being from the moment of fertilization."

In California, Proposition 4 would change the state constitution to require doctors to notify the parent or legal guardian of a pregnant minor at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on her. Thirty-five states have parental notification or parental consent laws on the books, according to the League of Women Voters of California. Golden state voters twice rejected similar parental notification ballot initiatives in 2005 and 2006.