Many decisions for US voters

2010-10-28 10:32

Chicago - Legalising marijuana, slashing taxes, shutting down puppy mills, curbing health care reform and blocking California's attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions: US voters have a lot of decisions to make in next week's elections.

Some 160 questions have been placed on statewide ballots, including 42 "citizen initiatives", and voters will face scores more from their municipal or county governments.

That's down sharply from previous years when controversial measures like gay marriage were used to boost voter turnout and drive national policy.

"It costs a lot of money to get an initiative on the ballot," said Jeannie Drage Bowser, a ballot initiative expert with the bipartisan National Conference on State Legislatures.

With the country still reeling from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, fundraising for ballot initiatives has taken a hit.

Sponsored initiatives

The sponsors of some initiatives, however, have had no trouble raising money.

The oil industry funded a $3.6m initiative to suspend California's greenhouse gas emission limits until after the state's unemployment rate drops to 5.5% or lower and stays there for a full year.

Retailer Costco and two liquor wholesalers spent $3.1m on measures which would allow private retailers to sell liquor and shut down state-run state liquor stores in Washington State.

And the American Beverage Industry broke a new record for ballot initiative funding with a nearly $17m effort to eliminate a tax on bottled water, soda and candy in the state.

"It is a powerful example of the impact of corporate money on campaigns," Bowser told AFP.

Not all the initiatives are funded by corporations: the Humane Society is behind a measure to tighten regulation of dog breeders and make "puppy mill cruelty" a crime in Missouri.

Legalising marijuana

And billionaire George Soros donated $1m on Tuesday to an effort to fully legalise - and tax - marijuana in California.

California was the first state to legalise the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996 and since then 14 other states have passed similar laws.

Arizona and South Dakota could soon join that list if voters there pass a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot.

There could be a lot more smoke in South Dakota if voters also pass an initiative to repeal tobacco smoking restrictions.

Many of the questions which made it onto the ballot focus on budgets and taxes.

Lawmakers in several states are seeking permission from voters to raise some taxes and user fees, increase their "rainy day" funds and make it easier to pass controversial budgets by switching to a simple majority vote instead of requiring two-thirds approval.

Draconian measures

Voters in nine states will also weigh in on measures that will significantly hit state revenues, including tax cuts and efforts to change the way schools are funded or impose harsher sentences on criminals.
Some of the most draconian initiatives are in Colorado.

Voters there will mull a series of measures that would slash taxes while shifting responsibility for $1.6bn in education funding to the state.

A study found this would leave legislators with just $38m in their general fund to spend on everything from keeping prisons open to keeping the lights on in the state capital.

"The people proposing these haven't said how the state should cope should these amendments pass," Bowser said, adding the measures would save Colorado families an average of $1 360 a year.

There is just one "culture war" initiative on the ballot this year: a move to amend Colorado's constitution to define the term "person" so that legal rights begin "from the moment of fertilisation" and abortion becomes murder.

However, voters in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma are considering measures to block the implementation of the Obama administration's sweeping health care reform which has been much maligned by his political opponents.