Poll initiatives buck legislatures in GOP-leaning states

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Marijuana legalization. An increase in the minimum wage. Expansion of Medicaid. Come Election Day, voters in a batch of Republican-dominated states will weigh in on these and other liberal or centrist proposals that reached the ballot after bypassing state legislatures.

Pushed forward via signature-gathering campaigns, these measures offer a chance for voters to do things their GOP-run legislatures oppose. Many are considered to have a good chance of passage.

In four of the states – Florida, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota – the ballot measures might have some effect on closely contested U.S. Senate races. Even a slight boost in turnout among liberal-leaning voters could help Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp, the endangered Democratic incumbents in those states.

Missouri is notable this year for having three left-leaning proposals on its ballot – raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and changing the congressional redistricting process so that it is potentially less partisan.

The minimum-wage measure might have special appeal to low-income voters from Kansas City and St. Louis, where efforts to raise pay locally were thwarted by the Legislature last year.

Among those dismayed by the Legislature’s move was the Rev. Starsky Wilson, who heads a social services foundation in St. Louis. He also co-chaired a commission that investigated economic and social inequality after the racial unrest provoked by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson.

“When the Legislature pre-empted, it showed what lengths folks will go to thwart the will of the people,” Wilson said. “These were unfortunate actions of some legislators who don’t seem to care about the poor and also don’t seem to care about democracy.”

Most of the financing for the minimum wage campaign has come from a Washington-based liberal organization, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has backed campaigns in other states.

The wage increase is opposed by Associated Industries of Missouri and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which say it will raise the cost of doing business and possibly reduce the number of entry-level jobs. However, more than 350 Missouri businesses have announced support for the increase.

The measure would gradually raise the state’s $7.85 minimum wage to $12 an hour, starting with a boost to $8.60 in January.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said that the current wage is not high enough and that even the bump in January might not do much for many minimum-wage workers. “But it’s a move in the right direction,” she said.

St. Louis had raised its minimum to $10 an hour before the legislature banned local governments from setting wages that were higher than the state’s.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the ballot measures might have only a marginal effect on turnout.

“That said, the marginal votes could make a huge difference in the Senate race because everyone expects it to be dead even,” he said, referring to McCaskill’s effort to repel a strong challenge from Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Aside from Missouri, other GOP-controlled states with liberal- or centrist-backed measures on the ballot include:

– Arkansas, to raise the state minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 by 2021.

– Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, to expand Medicaid coverage to more residents.

– Montana, to raise tobacco taxes to extend an existing Medicaid expansion.

– North Dakota and Michigan, to legalize recreational use of marijuana, a step already taken by nine other states.

– Utah, to legalize medical use of marijuana.

– Michigan and Utah, to change the redistricting process, an issue also on the ballot in swing-state Colorado.

– Florida, to restore the right to vote for most people with felony convictions upon completion of their sentences. The proposed constitutional amendment needs the support of 60 percent of voters to prevail; if that happens, an estimated 1.4 million Floridians could regain the right to vote.

The Democrats in Florida’s two highest-profile election contests support the amendment – gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. Nelson’s GOP opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, opposes the amendment, as does Ron DeSantis, the Republican seeking to succeed Scott as governor.

Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, said public support for the amendment appears to be strong, possibly providing a modest boost to Gillum and Nelson.

“It’s not going to help the Republicans at all,” Smith said. “Will it help the Democrats? It could, at the margins.”

The partisan pattern is reversed in two Democratic-leaning states, Oregon and Massachusetts, where conservatives are using the initiative process in a bid to overturn existing state policy.

The target in Massachusetts is a 2016 law extending nondiscrimination protections to transgender people in their use of public accommodations.

Conservatives in Oregon are targeting two policies – one that allows use of state funds to pay for low-income women’s abortions, the other forbidding law enforcement agencies from using state resources or personnel to arrest people whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University, views the initiative process as a valuable tool for citizens disenchanted with their legislature.

“If it’s legislating much too far from where the people are in any direction – conservative or liberal – the initiative is one way to move it back to where the people are,” he said.

In all, there will be 157 measures on the Nov. 6 ballot in 37 states. As usual, most of the measures were placed on the ballot by state legislatures; there are 65 measures resulting from citizen campaigns.

In some states, initiatives have met with strong resistance, either from the legislature or powerful interest groups.

In Arizona, after a six-day strike by tens of thousands of teachers, they and their allies gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would boost school funding by raising taxes on the wealthy. The Arizona Supreme Court blocked the initiative after the state’s Chamber of Commerce and others said the tax hike would harm the economy.

In South Dakota, voters decided in 2016 to create an independent government ethics commission. Lawmakers repealed the measure just months later, but supporters have come back this year with an even stronger measure on the ballot.

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Follow David Crary at https://twitter.com/CraryAP

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