By Pamela M. Prah, Stateline Staff Writer

The hot social questions of 2008 are taking a back seat to fiscal matters on this November’s ballot, as voters take up 155 measures, ranging from a first-time income tax on high-wage earners in Washington State to an initiative that would lower the sales tax in Massachusetts.

“The economy is trumping all else,” says Dan Smith, director of the political campaigning program at the University of Florida, who specializes in ballot measures. “We’re not seeing many social `wedge’ issues this year,” he said, referring to divisive issues that often draw partisans to the polls, such as gay marriage and abortion.

For the first time in more than a decade, gay marriage is absent from any statewide ballot and the only abortion measure this November is in Colorado where voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to define “personhood” as beginning at conception. Coloradans overwhelmingly rejected a similar measure in 2008. The only other abortion-related measure of the year appeared on Alaska’s primary ballot in August when voters approved a measure requiring that minors notify their parents before receiving an abortion.

Even pro-choice advocates expected to be on the defensive a bit more this fall, since efforts to place anti-abortion measures on state ballots were underway earlier in the year in nearly a dozen states, says Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate in the Guttmacher Institute. “It’s a little surprising that we didn’t see more,” she says. “I don’t have a good reason why.”

Federal measures targeted

This year’s slate of ballot measures also is characterized by a focus on Capitol Hill, taking aim not at new state policy, but at legislation that Congress has already approved – or might vote on.

A nationwide effort to nullify a key element of the new federal health care law will be on fewer November ballots than many had expected. Only voters in Arizona and Oklahoma will take up measures that would prohibit the government from requiring a person to get health care insurance, a linchpin of the new federal law. A court removed a similar measure from the ballot in Florida, saying it was too confusing, and efforts in Alabama, Colorado and Mississippi likewise faltered. While experts question the constitutional validity of these ballot measures even if they pass, as one did overwhelmingly in Missouri in August, supporters say voter repudiation sends a clear message to overturn the entire law.

Anti-labor measures in four states constitute a preemptive strike in case Congress passes legislation making it easier for unions to organize by allowing a majority of workers to join a union by signing a card (“card check”). Voters in Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah will decide if their state constitutions should require a secret ballot for workers deciding to recognize a union.

Supporters say the ballot measures are the best way to protect workers’ right to a personal and private choice in case Congress approves the “card check” bill. Organized labor says if Congress acts, the federal law will take precedence over the state ballot measures and even if existing labor law remains the same, courts likely will throw out the measures. “It seems like a waste of time” and money for states to put the measures on the ballot and count the votes, says Nancy Schiffer, associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO. In any case, the chances for passage of card-check legislation in Congress any time in the near future appear extremely slim.

Anti-government theme

Fewer citizens' measures during lean timesIt may come as something of a surprise that this year’s total crop of ballot measures from citizens is actually slightly smaller than normal. Of the 155 measures voters will take up, only 42 come from citizens’ initiatives, the lowest number in 24 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The rest were largely put on the ballot by legislatures. The recession may be one reason why, since getting a citizen-based initiative on the ballot can be very expensive.

But as Stateline has reported, some of the anti-tax measures that did get on the ballot would pack a powerful punch to state budgets. Measures in Massachusetts and Washington would roll back recent sales tax increases, creating estimated deficits of $2.5 billion in Massachusetts and $350 million in Washington. A trio of anti-tax measures in Colorado could cost the state $2.1 billion, out of a general fund budget of about $7 billion. Californians will consider whether new fees and charges – and not just taxes – should require a two-thirds vote from the Legislature, rather than a simple majority, with the potential of reducing state revenues by billions of dollars.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says he sees an upswing in fiscal and regulatory policy issues on state and local ballots and “the trend seems to be more about limiting government than growing it,” a position his organization advocates.

But a few significant measures run counter to the anti-government, anti-tax theme, most prominently an initiative backed by Bill Gates and his father to put a tax on high incomes in Washington, one of nine states without an income tax. If this passes, ballot expert Dan Smith says, “it shows there are pockets of the country where voters are not buying into the Tea Party sentiment that government is out of control.”

Still, anti-tax advocates expect big victories come Election Day. “When we look back, we’ll continue to see a wave of backlash against big government spending at the federal and state levels,” predicts Joshua Culling of Americans for Tax Reform, a group known for asking candidates and politicians to sign a Taxpayer Protection Pledge vowing not to raise income taxes. “People are that ticked off,” he says.

With the recession crimping smaller, grassroots organizers, many of the initiatives that did make it to the ballot this year have sponsors with deep pockets. Some of the most prominent ones involve food and drink. For example:

  • A measure in Washington state to privatize liquor sales is known as “the Costco initiative” since that multi-billion dollar warehouse club operation spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the measure on the ballot with hopes to be able to sell liquor in its stores there.
  • The American Beverage Association has contributed $14.2 million toward another measure in Washington State to repeal a sales tax on soda and candy, The Seattle Times reported.
  • The Massachusetts Package Stores Association helped put on the ballot a measure to repeal a new sales tax on liquor in that state, arguing that the tax on alcohol will drive customers to New Hampshire, which doesn’t have a sales tax.

Meanwhile, in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has blasted out-of-state oil companies for their involvement in getting a measure on the ballot that would essentially undo the state’s global warming law. “Does anyone really believe that these companies, out of the goodness of their black oil hearts, are spending millions and millions of dollars to protect our jobs?” the Associated Press quoted the governor as saying.

Jennie Drage Bowser of NCSL says that while the initiative often is used as a grassroots tool to allow citizens to bypass state government when they’re frustrated by state politicians’ actions, the initiative process “is also increasingly used by industry to bypass state government in order to create policy that is more friendly to their goals and their bottom line.”