Measure by Measure

12/1/2014

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | december  2014

Voters gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to many ballot measures, from marijuana legalization to minimum wage hikes.

By Wendy Underhill

The voters said yes.

Yes, that is, to increasing the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, helping veterans, protecting the environment and passing bonds.

In Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, citizens petitioned to have minimum wage hikes go before the voters, and in all four states, the measures passed handily. It could be that voters really were voting their pocketbooks—and lawmakers are taking note. Voters said yes to marijuana measures as well. Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia all approved legalizing marijuana for adult use. The measures in Alaska and Oregon were similar to Colorado’s and Washington’s, the two states that led the way in 2012 to recreational marijuana. D.C.’s measure is a bit different—it decriminalizes the possession of a small amount of pot or a few marijuana plants. Guam voters had their very first referendum of any kind this year, and they said yes to medical marijuana, now legal in 23 states. Although a majority of voters in Florida said yes to medical marijuana, the measure failed. That’s because in the Sunshine State it takes 60 percent to pass a constitutional amendment, but only 57.6 percent of the voters said yes.

Even conservation was popular at the polls. Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island all approved new measures to preserve wildlife or land, or to fund such programs. North Dakota was the hold-out on this issue, turning down a proposal to use 5 percent of its mineral extraction tax for efforts to preserve clean water, wildlife and parks.

Bond Measures Pass

Staying with the thumbs-up theme, voters said yes to all statewide bond measures, no matter how big and no matter how small. California’s long-awaited $7.12 billion package to deal with infrastructure for a sufficient (and clean) water supply was by far the biggest. It passed with 67.7 percent of the vote—perhaps not a huge surprise in a state where residents sometimes worry where their next shower is coming from, thanks to a long-lasting drought.

The smallest bond measure? Voters approved $3 million for biomedical research in Maine.

Illinoisans said yes to a trio of nonbinding advisory measures that served more as popularity polls than as policy decisions. They addressed three hot-button issues: whether health insurance should cover birth control, whether millionaires should be taxed extra to fund education, and whether the legislature should increase the minimum wage. Yes, yes and yes, the voters said—but the laws won’t change unless lawmakers act.

Voters in Massachusetts approved repealing the indexing of the gas tax to inflation. And voters in three states approved measures that offered a tax break or other generous nod to anyone involved in the military, past or present. Oklahoma had three such measures that received loud yes votes. The first will permit active military personnel to also hold other civic posts (69.4 percent). The second will offer a homestead exemption to disabled veterans (90.4 percent). And the last will extend the homestead exemption to the spouses of servicemen and women killed in action (90.5 percent). Louisiana and Virginia were equally generous with tax exemptions for disabled veterans and their spouses as well as spouses of those killed in action, respectively.

Overall, 66 percent of statewide ballot measures were approved. The percentage is even higher for measures put on the ballot by legislative referral (76 percent) than by citizen initiatives (43 percent). This difference is in keeping with history, and in keeping with the careful crafting and compromise that a measure receives under the dome.

Some No Votes, Too

In Colorado and North Dakota, voters turned down “personhood” amendments that would have given legal status to the unborn. Coloradoans did so for the third time, although the yes votes have crept up each time. In 2008, a similar measure garnered 26.7 percent of the vote. In 2010, it was up to 29.5 percent. This year, 35.3 percent said yes.

One abortion-related measure did receive voters’ approval, however. In Tennessee, a state constitutional amendment to permit the Legislature to enact laws to regulate abortion was approved by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. It adds these words to the constitution: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” It isn’t much of a spoiler alert to say we can expect to see bills introduced in Tennessee early next session on abortion.

Voters in other states said no to changing the way they vote. Studies have shown that voters say they prefer their current mode of voting, whether it is on paper or a machine, early or on Election Day, and this year’s results confirmed it. Voters in Connecticut and Missouri turned down early voting, an option available in one form or another in 36 other states. Montanans said no to repealing same-day registration in opposition to the will of the Legislature, which sent the plan on to the voters after facing a veto in 2013. And, in Oregon, voters rejected the idea of switching from typical primaries to a “top-two” primary, in which all candidates, regardless of party, would run on the same primary ticket. The only voting-related measure that did receive approval was in Illinois, where a right-to-vote amendment that prohibits denying anyone the right to vote based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other grounds was added to the constitution.

And, yet again, statewide votes in Colorado and Oregon on whether foods should have labels indicating they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) went down. On this up-and-coming national issue, Oregon came closer, with 49.1 percent of voters saying yes. The movement is 0 for 4, with earlier no votes in Washington (2013) and California (2012).

A few other rejected measures include: a constitutional convention in Rhode Island; a measure to force dry counties to go wet in Arkansas; a requirement that public schools start after Labor Day in North Dakota; an expansion of gambling to fund education in Colorado; and an increase in the marginal tax on businesses with revenues greater than $1 million to fund education in Nevada.

That’s hardly a complete run-down of the 147 measures that showed up on ballots in 41 states plus the District of Columbia. The content of the others—and the results—were a mixed bag all around. Dig in to NCSL’s Ballot Measures Database at www.ncsl.org for the whole scoop.

Now and Then

55%

Voters who supported legalizing recreational marijuana in Oregon in 2014

52%

Voters who supported legalizing recreational marijuana in Alaska in 2014

51%

Americans who supported legalizing marijuana in 2014

7.3%

Americans who reported using marijuana regularly in 2012

46.5%

Voters who supported legalizing recreational marijuana in Oregon in 2012

40.9%

Voters who supported legalizing recreational marijuana in Alaska in 2000

58%

Americans who supported legalizing marijuana in 2013

5.8%

Americans who reported using marijuana regularly in 2007

 

 

Something for Lawmakers, Too

Not all ballot measures can draw a crowd.

Sure, there has been plenty of chatter about marijuana, GMO food labeling and the minimum wage, but voters also weighed in on policy questions of particular importance to legislators.

Here are some of those measures that directly affect the actions and responsibilities of state legislatures:

  • More than 68 percent of Arizona’s voters frowned on the idea of raising salaries for legislators to $35,000 from $24,000 annually, even though the raise was recommended by an independent commission.
  • Measures to give more authority to legislators in Arkansas and Idaho broke differently. Voters approved a measure allowing legislative committees in Arkansas to have a say on administrative rules set by the executive branch, while a similar measure failed by a hair in Idaho.
  • Also in Arkansas, voters narrowly decided to extend term limits for state lawmakers from six years in each chamber to 16 years total. The measure also sets limits on certain campaign contributions, lengthens the time period to two years from one year before a former legislator can become a lobbyist and requires legislative salaries to be set by a commission.
  • Louisiana voters rejected Amendment 14, which said no tax rebate, tax incentive or tax abatement legislation could be introduced in even years.
  • Missourians thought it wise to impose restrictions on their governor’s budgeting authority when revenues fail to meet targets. Voters passed Amendment 10, giving legislators the ability to veto the governor’s budget actions at any point during the year with a two-thirds majority vote.
  • Techies and trees ruled the day in New York, where voters approved a measure that will allow electronic copies of proposed bills to be distributed to legislators.

—By Michael D. Hernandez

By the Numbers

Midterm Ballot Measures

4

States that raised the minimum wage.

27

States, plus D.C., that have now set the minimum wage above the federal level.

2

States and territories that voted on medical marijuana. Guam approved it; Florida didn’t.

23

States (+ Guam and D.C.) that now have legalized medical marijuana.

2

States that approved recreational marijuana.

4

States that now allow recreational marijuana.

0

Pro-GMO labeling measures that have passed out of four attempts since 2012.

 

Wendy Underhill manages NCSL's elections team.

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources