Social Issues Score Big: December 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Voters made history—and surprised many political observers—when they approved legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriages.
By Jennie Drage Bowser
On Election Day, Americans voiced their opinions on more than 170 ballot measures in 38 states. They said no to most, but passed some groundbreaking ones, reversing course by slim margins on issues such as gay marriage and recreational marijuana use and even approved of increasing taxes and rejecting cuts in a few states. In some cases, they stood up to their legislatures, defeating laws already in place.
Voters in Maine and Maryland said yes to gay marriages. Citizens in Colorado approved of legalizing marijuana. And residents of Washington said yes to both.
Over the last 14 years, voters have approved 32 out of 33 statewide bans on gay marriage, but that changed this year. Voters in Maine approved the statewide measure on same-sex marriage with 52.6 percent of the vote. Referenda on gay-marriage laws passed by legislatures in Maryland and Washington also were approved, with 51.9 percent and 52 percent of the votes, respectively.
A constitutional amendment in Minnesota defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman was defeated by 51 percent of the voters. Minnesota now joins Arizona as the only states that have rejected bans on same-sex marriage. Arizona did so in 2006; however, in 2008, voters reversed course and approved one.
On the marijuana front, Colorado and Washington (again) made history when voters approved measures to legalize and control recreational marijuana for the first time. A little more than 55 percent of Washington voters and 54.8 percent in Colorado approved of the initiatives. Voters in Oregon rejected a similar measure.
Colorado’s amendment allows adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, as long as they don’t use the drug publicly. It also allows people to privately grow up to six marijuana plants. The Colorado proposal does not impose a specific tax, but instead directs the state legislature to determine the tax, although it cannot require lawmakers to do so. If a tax is imposed, the first $40 million raised each year must go toward the construction of public schools. The issue now rests in the hands of the Colorado General Assembly, which will convene in January. Colorado voters are not quite finished with the marijuana measure’s details, however. State law requires them to approve any tax passed by the General Assembly before it can take effect.
Washington’s initiative allows adults to buy up to an ounce of marijuana from state-licensed growers, processors and stores. It also establishes a standard blood limit for driving under the influence. It requires marijuana producers and processors to submit samples to independent labs for testing, and requires the destruction of samples that fail.
Washington will impose a 25 percent tax on various types of marijuana sales, with the majority of the revenue going to health and substance abuse programs. The state estimates revenue could be as high as $1.9 billion over five years.
Voters in Massachusetts approved legalizing medical marijuana while the Arkansas electorate turned down a similar bill. Montana voters rubber-stamped the Legislature’s move to impose additional regulations on an existing medical marijuana program. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have now approved medical marijuana, although no Southern state has.
Puerto Rico Votes on Statehood
More than half of the Puerto Ricans who voted on statehood questions would like to change the territory’s 114-year relationship with the United States. And when given the choice among three options—statehood, sovereign free association and total independence—statehood is by far the most popular, although one-third of the voters chose not to vote on the issue. Of those who did, 61 percent favored making Puerto Rico the 51st state, while 33 percent chose a more autonomous free association, and 5 percent voted for total independence.
What’s next? The referendum is nonbinding, so any move toward statehood must still receive congressional approval. It’s unknown where congressional leaders stand on the issue, although a report issued in March 2011 by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status recommends the United States “honor the choice of the people of Puerto Rico.”
As far as elected officials, the Popular Democratic Party won the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the legislature, all previously held by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
The territory is similar in size and population to Connecticut.
In 38 states, citizens faced 174 different ballot measures, of which 42 were citizen initiatives. Of those, voters approved only 17. That’s slightly lower than the average during the past decade, when voters approved about 45 percent of all initiatives on the ballot. Voters in Alabama, California and Florida faced a daunting 11 statewide measures each, ranging from freedom of religion to health care reform to budget and revenue caps.
There were 12 popular referenda on the ballot this year, the highest number since 1920, and half of them passed. Of the 115 measures referred by state legislatures, voters approved 85 and rejected 30. That is fairly typical. Voters approved an average of 74.2 percent of the legislative referenda appearing on statewide ballots between 2000 and 2010.
Affordable Care Act
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act didn’t do as well as the president on election night. Voters in Alabama, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming approved legislative measures blocking some part of the law, joining voters in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma who have approved similar measures during the past two years. Although these measures differ in their details, most of the proposals are similar in that they generally amend the state constitution to prohibit requiring participation in a specific health care system or the purchase of health insurance.
Missouri voters in 2010 approved a law by the General Assembly prohibiting government from penalizing citizens for refusing to buy health insurance. This year, the state’s voters approved a law prohibiting the state from setting up a health insurance exchange.
Floridians went the other direction, however. They voted against exempting their state from the federal health law, as Colorado voters had done in 2010.
Education Passes Test
Maryland passed a DREAM Act that allows in-state tuition rates for unauthorized immigrants who graduate from a high school within the state. It’s the first state to do so by a popular vote and joins 13 other states with some type of a DREAM Act. Maryland’s passed with 59 percent of the vote.
Voters in Idaho and South Dakota rejected attempts by their lawmakers to reduce the influence of teachers’ unions. These questions came in the form of four popular referenda—the mechanism for voters to veto actions by the legislature.
A charter school measure was approved in Georgia that changes the way they are authorized. California voters approved of temporarily raising both the state sales and income taxes on high-income earners to help fund K-12 education and community colleges as well as help balance the state budget.
Oregon voters approved the idea of redirecting the corporate “kicker”—a refund for corporate income tax revenue that is collected in excess of a state-imposed cap—from corporate taxpayers to education.
Elsewhere, voters rejected increasing taxes to fund education. Arizonans said no to making a temporary sales tax increase permanent to fund education programs. South Dakota voters rejected a sales tax increase intended for K-12 education and Medicaid. And Missouri voters decided against increasing taxes on tobacco to benefit education.
Death, Taxes and Lawmaking
Myriad other issues were presented to citizens to consider. In Massachusetts, voters rejected an assisted suicide measure that would have allowed a doctor to legally prescribe medication at the request of a terminally ill patient.
Voters rejected several tax proposals, including limiting state revenue in Florida, and requiring a two-thirds legislative vote for tax increases in Michigan.
Other measures approved were symbolic, such as a prohibition on taxing real estate transfers in Oregon, even though the state currently does not tax real estate transfers.
In Michigan, voters rejected a law that has allowed state-appointed emergency managers to terminate public employee contracts and collective bargaining agreements.
Nebraskans voted down two measures proposed by their nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature. One would have allowed members to serve an extra term beyond the current limit of two consecutive four-year terms, and another would have increased legislators’ annual compensation from $12,000 to $22,500.
Alabamans also voted on lawmakers’ pay, supporting a measure tying the basic compensation plan for the Legislature to the median household income in the state. It also restricts lawmakers from voting to raise their own compensation.
Minnesota defeated a constitutional amendment requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls. This is a change in direction for this issue, with voters having approved voter ID measures in Mississippi in 2011 and in Oklahoma in 2010. Eleven state legislatures have approved new voter ID laws over the past two years.
Last but not least, voters turned down all three proposed constitutional conventions.
Jennie Drage Bowser is NCSL’s expert on statewide ballot issues.