In total, 155 measures are on the ballots in 36 states, a number roughly unchanged from previous years.
Published: October 5, 2010
The nation’s job woes may be the determining factor in which party controls Congress, but voters across the country will also have the chance to weigh in directly — through ballot initiatives — on some of the other contentious issues that have made cameo turns in the spotlight this year.
In Oklahoma, the ballot will feature a measure to ban state judges from using Islamic law, called Sharia, in court decisions, even though it has never happened. In Washington, voters will address an issue similar to one Republicans successfully kept from coming to a vote in the United States Senate: a proposed tax increase for the rich.
Voters in three states will have the opportunity to take a largely symbolic stand against the federal health care law approved this year by declaring that individuals or business cannot be compelled to buy health insurance. And in Colorado, leaders of all political persuasions are joining to urge voters to reject three tax initiatives they say would drive the state to fiscal calamity.
In total, 155 measures are on the ballots in 36 states, a number roughly unchanged from previous years. While lacking the thematic cohesion of years past — when states around the country simultaneously weighed in on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage or eminent domain — this year’s raft of initiatives, referendums and propositions nonetheless capture the political spirit of the season.
Perennially divisive issues are back: Colorado voters will decide whether to define human life as beginning at fertilization; Oklahoma voters will decide whether to make English the official state language; and, in perhaps the nation’s most closely watched referendum, California voters will decide whether to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use.
But most of the measures to be decided on Election Day are routine housekeeping: fiscal proposals — like bond requests, property tax exemptions and licensing fees — that capture the constant ideological tug of war of taxing and spending.
“What it feels like is that the state legislatures are really fixated on the routine budgetary stuff, trying to keep their ships afloat,” said John G. Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. “The ballot propositions seem to have become an outlet for all the other issues that the legislators don’t have the time to deal with right now.”
Government spending is at the heart of the three ballot measures in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma — which, along with California, have the longest and most controversial lineup of ballot measures this year — that aim to nullify President Obama’s signature health care legislation. The measures, which are similar to one overwhelmingly approved by voters in Missouri this summer and approved legislatively in five other states, would establish that individuals or business cannot be compelled to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty. The effect, however, is uncertain, given that the requirement does not become effective until 2014 and is already the subject of lawsuits.
The proposed constitutional ban on judges’ using international law in general — and Sharia law in particular — in Oklahoma has caused local Muslim leaders to complain that the state legislators behind the proposal were “riding a wave” of anti-Islamic sentiment across the nation, citing the controversy over burning Korans and protest over mosques elsewhere. “Sharia law is not a threat to anyone, I don’t care where you live,“ said Saad Mohammed, a director at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. “Bigotry and prejudice is driving this.”
State Representative Rex Duncan, who is chairman of the state judiciary panel and the lead sponsor of the measure, said he knew of no judge ever citing Sharia law in a ruling in Oklahoma and could point to only one case in the country where the law had been cited. (In that case, a Family Court judge in New Jersey cited a man’s Islamic faith in denying a restraining order to a woman who said she had been raped by her husband. The ruling was overturned by a higher court.) But Mr. Duncan said the measure was “a pre-emptive strike.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has called for a similar federal law, and Mr. Duncan said he had received inquiries from legislators in a dozen other states who expressed interest in adopting a similar ban.
The political rhetoric has grown particularly heated in Colorado, where Republican and Democratic politicians as well as labor and business groups have united to warn that the passage of three tax-cutting measures — dubbed the “ugly three” by opponents — would lead to such fiscal disaster that governing the state would be “nearly impossible.” They cite official state analysis that concluded that the budget would be cut by a quarter and the state would also be prohibited from taking on debt, preventing large capital projects.
“I’ve never seen a fiscal impact comparable to what would happen if all three of these were to pass,“ said Jennie D. Bowser, who studies ballot initiatives for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Washington initiative would create the state’s first income tax, exclusively on individuals who earn more than $200,000 — the same figure favored by President Obama, who has proposed extending tax cuts for individuals making less than that amount but allowing taxes to rise for those making more. (The tax rate would be 5 percent and increase to 9 percent for those making more than $500,000.)
The debate follows the national framing. Supporters say that the tax is needed to continue paying for services (it would be devoted to education and health care) and would affect only a tiny fraction of people while allowing taxes to be cut for everybody else. Critics say the increase would discourage business investment and prolong the recession, questioning whether politicians can be trusted with greater access to taxpayer money.
As with all state initiatives, the back and forth features a local flavor. The pro-tax effort is being led by Bill Gates Sr. and endorsed by his son, the Microsoft founder; the anti-tax effort is being supported by the current head of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer.