- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2013

DENVER — Ballot questions are taking center stage in the Nov. 5 elections as voters in a half-dozen states grapple with issues including marijuana taxes, genetically modified foods and casino gambling.

A combined 31 measures are spread among ballots in six states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many are routine bond issues, but several high-profile questions are drawing national attention in an otherwise sleepy off-year election season.

In Washington state, nearly $24 million has been spent on Initiative 522, which would require labeling of genetically modified foods.

The ballot question is a repeat of the expensive battle over genetically modified organisms in California, where the agriculture and food industries narrowly beat back a labeling initiative supported by environmentalists in 2012.

Opponents of Initiative 522, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have outraised supporters by a ratio of more than 3-to-1. The campaign also has collected a dozen newspaper endorsements, including that of The Seattle Times, which said supporters are running “a clumsy, emotion-based campaign.”

“Labeling is one part of an effort to make the use of GMOs more expensive, arduous and complicated for farmers, processors, shippers, inspectors and regulators. Confused consumers are a desirable bonus,” said the Oct. 5 editorial.

The Yes on Initiative 522 committee dismisses those arguments by saying, “Label updates are a routine part of business for the food industry and should not result in additional costs to shoppers.”

The pro-522 committee also is running what may be the most memorable television ad of the campaign season, which shows a farmer standing in a pasture with a black bull.

“Big companies claim that labeling genetically engineered food will raise costs,” says the farmer. “Bull,” says the bull.

Marijuana taxes

In Colorado, voters are watching the battle of the potheads unfold as marijuana enthusiasts square off on both sides of Proposition AA, which establishes sales and excise taxes for recreational marijuana for adults in the aftermath of a successful legalization campaign last year.

State lawmakers, business groups and sponsors of last year’s legalization effort, Amendment 64, have lined up behind Proposition AA, saying the taxes are needed to create a successful regulatory and enforcement mechanism as Colorado moves into uncharted legal territory on marijuana.

Colorado and Washington became the first and only states to approve recreational pot for adults 21 and older in November. The Washington measure included a taxation component, but the Colorado amendment called for voters to approve taxes proposed by the state legislature.

Supporters point out that the revenue is needed to create a top-notch regulatory system, given that the Justice Department is keeping an eye on both states. In addition, the first $40 million raised by the excise tax goes to fund school construction.

Norton Arbelaez, who heads the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, said in a statement that the measure will “ensure proper and thorough regulation of this new industry, to fulfill the mandate recently set out by the Department of Justice, and perhaps most importantly, to provide sorely needed funds for Colorado schools.”

Pro-pot and anti-tax

Proposition AA is opposed by No Overtaxation, a group led by Denver lawyer Rob Corry, a high-profile backer of Amendment 64. Mr. Corry, who has drawn headlines by throwing two joint giveaway events, said the taxes are too high and will result in a “gray market” that will discourage legal marijuana use.

Proposition AA calls for a 15 percent excise tax along with a sales tax that starts at 10 percent but could be raised to 15 percent. That is in addition to sales taxes and a proposed city marijuana sales tax on the ballot in Denver.

“You’re looking at a [potential] 52 percent tax rate in Denver. I don’t know how our industry thinks it can survive this,” said Mr. Corry. “It’s too bad that the same people who said they supported Amendment 64 are going to undercut it. It’s a gigantic step backward.”

The casino gamble

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is going all in on Proposal 1, a measure that would allow seven full-service casinos or, as he calls them, “resort destinations and conference centers.” The first four would be in economically struggling upstate New York.

“New Yorkers currently spend more than $1.2 billion a year at destination casinos in neighboring states,” says a statement by Jobs Now, a Proposal 1 advocacy committee. “Allowing casinos in New York will keep a lot of that money right here in New York where it belongs — helping to generate economic activity, fund our schools, and provide tax relief.”

In Mr. Cuomo’s corner are labor unions and business groups, but opposing the measure are the Institute for American Values and the Coalition Against Gambling in New York, whose organizers argue that the casinos will contribute to crime and addiction while draining revenue from local communities.

At a Wednesday news conference, opponents made their point by taking a sledgehammer to a slot machine in front of the state Capitol in Albany.

“This is not a stunt. This is an effort to try to get our argument out,” David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, told The Associated Press. “There has not been a single public hearing. Gov. Cuomo has not given a single significant speech so there has been a misleading and a confusing set of arguments coming from the pro-casino side.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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