- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The struggling economy is even making its presence felt on state ballots across the country this November, as initiatives on social issues such as abortion, immigration and gay rights are giving way to bread-and-butter questions about taxes and government spending.

Voters in 37 states are being asked to decide about 159 ballot questions next month, the majority of them related to taxes, bonds and public debt.

“Lawmakers are staying away from social issues and sticking with financial issues,” said Michael P. McDonald, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “Hot-button issues are not having the same effect this year. They’re also emphasizing local issues because otherwise it would look like they don’t care about the state of the economy.”

For the first time in a decade, according to Stateline.org, there is no state ballot initiative on gay marriage, and only in Colorado is there an abortion-related measure.

The shift could have a direct impact on the outcome of a few tight contests, as hotly contested social issues in the past have proven able to energize voting blocs and have a direct impact on overall turnout, political analysts said.

Social issues will not be absent from the ballot. Voters in California, Arizona, South Dakota and Oregon face questions on the legal treatment of marijuana, and Colorado will once again vote on a proposal backed by pro-life forces that would legally apply the term “person” to every human being from the moment of conception.

In Oklahoma, the Legislature has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit courts from relying on international law or Islamic-based Sharia law when making rulings.

Of the citizen initiatives on November ballots, roughly 34 are related to taxes, 10 to bond issues and 23 deal with state budgets.

Voters have already decided on 24 ballot initiatives in primaries and special elections. Though the majority also focused on financial issues, the most high-profile initiative was Missouri’s Proposition C, which asked residents to nullify a provision in President Obama’s new federal health care law that requires them to purchase medical insurance.

Still, supporters for Prop C, which passed by roughly 70 percent, say the initiative is consistent with this year’s trend, not an exception.

“Health care is a financial issue,” said Raegan Weber of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based group that advocates for limited government. “Citizens and state government cannot afford the federal reform legislation. … The unfunded individual mandate will also cost billions of dollars in the states, many of which are already struggling.”

Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said the health care fight at the state level is a financial issue.

“Obamacare is ultimately a tax bill,” he said. “Why do you think the federal government needs to hire thousands of IRS agents? No question, economy-related issues trump every other issue this election cycle, even national security, not only in Washington, but at the state level.”

Similar health care repeal initiatives will be on ballots next month in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma.

Ballotpedia, which annually tracks ballot initiatives, reports a decrease in the number of social issues and an increase in financial and revenue issues from 2008 to 2010, reversing the trend of previous cycles. For example, there were three same-sex marriage initiatives in 2008, compared with none this election cycle. In addition, 12 gambling and three immigration initiatives were on 2008 ballots compared with four and one, respectively, this year.

According to Bailey Ludlam, an analyst with Ballotpedia’s BallotNews.org, the majority of the financially oriented questions focus on three topics: ways to raise revenue, tax exemptions and requiring a two-thirds vote from the state legislature prior to imposing new taxes.

“In light of the current recession, economic issues are at the center of most statewide discussions,” she wrote in a recent analysis of state initiative questions this year

Though legalizing marijuana, a long-standing social issue, will be the biggest November ballot initiative, some supporters are also framing that as a question not of individual rights but of money.

Jeff Wilcox, a supporter of Proposition 19, California’s initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana, commissioned a study projecting how much tax money would be generated by a proposed statute in Oakland to license the growing of medical marijuana. The six-month study found the plan would annually reap at least $60 million in taxes and other revenue.

Mr. Gerow said Prop 19’s backers have timed their proposal shrewdly, getting the initiative on the ballot when the state is in the midst of a festering budget crisis.

“Timing is the main ingredient in politics,” he said.

Supporters of ballot initiatives also consider whether to put them in the primary or general election to bring out voters and help their preferred candidates.

“If it’s your intent to pass a minimum-wage increase, you might decide on a ballot when only Democratic races are contested,” said the Brookings Institution’s Mr. McDonald.

Many in President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign have credited Ohio’s anti-gay marriage initiative with boosting conservative turnout that year and provided Mr. Bush with the votes he needed in a very close contest with Sen. John Kerry.

“That was the state that decided the race,” said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Missouri state Sen. Jane Cunningham, said Republican lawmakers had wanted Prop C on the November ballot, with the idea of boosting Republican Rep. Roy Blunt in the race for the state’s open Senate seat against Democrat Robin Carnahan. But Missouri Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster the proposal, so Republicans accepted the primary ballot as an compromise.

“Still, Missouri was the first state to vote against Obamacare and let everybody know a sleeping giant had awakened and was mad,” Ms. Cunningham said.