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CAMPAIGN 2000

Hot-Button Ballot Issues Across Nation Draw Heavy Attention, Money

November 07, 2000|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Darlene Grover nursed her father through a painful death from colon cancer nine years ago. Today, she hopes to make good on his final request: that doctor-assisted suicide become a legal option to help terminally ill people die in peace.

The proposed Maine Death with Dignity Act is only one of a broad range of hot-button social issues to be decided by election day ballot questions in many states. As in the Maine proposal, many of the ballot questions have drawn nearly as much attention and money as any race for office.

Voters in Nevada and Nebraska may bar state recognition of same-sex marriages. Arizona may outlaw bilingual education in public schools. Alaska may legalize marijuana and allow the Legislature to regulate it, as alcoholic beverages are regulated for highway safety and similar purposes. Massachusetts voters may order their Legislature to design a health insurance program that covers every resident.

In all, voters in 42 states will decide more than 200 ballot questions, including eight in California, according to the Washington-based Initiative & Referendum Institute.

About two-thirds of the questions were placed on ballots by legislatures. Most of those are housekeeping items, such as redrawing county lines.

The other one-third, including the most contentious questions, were fostered by wealthy individuals or by citizens such as Grover, who have often spent years doing the spadework to promote a ballot question. Twenty-four states allow such citizen initiatives, which in most cases require sponsors to gather thousands of signatures to place a question on the ballot.

In Alabama, voters are being asked to remove a 99-year-old provision from the state Constitution that bars interracial marriage. The measure is unenforceable under a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, but the vote carries symbolic weight nonetheless. South Carolina voters approved a similar question in 1998, but some residents were disturbed that 38% voted to retain the marriage ban. Alabama is the last of as many as 40 states to have interracial marriage bans.

In four states, wealthy entrepreneurs are backing ballot measures that could bring big changes to public schools. In California, venture capitalist Timothy Draper has spent more than $23 million to back Proposition 38, which would provide tax-funded vouchers, worth at least $4,000 each, to parents for private school tuition. The state's teachers' union has spent at least $26 million to stop the measure. It is likely to be the most expensive state ballot fight this year nationwide.

In Michigan, Amway Corp. founder Rich DeVos and his family have put up millions of dollars to back a tuition voucher proposal, but only for children in failing public schools. With the Roman Catholic Church also supporting the measure and teachers' unions opposing it, the fight is expected to cost more than Michigan's tight race for the U.S. Senate.

In Washington state, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen is backing a measure that would authorize more charter schools.

Arizona's proposal to bar bilingual teaching in public schools is bankrolled by software millionaire Ron K. Unz of Palo Alto, Calif., who says he has spent about $200,000.

Much of the debate in Arizona has focused on the effect of a similar ballot question that voters approved two years ago in California, Proposition 227, for which Unz put up more than $700,000. Unz and others say that the latest test scores show big gains for immigrant students in California since bilingual teaching was barred, with the biggest gains coming in districts that moved most aggressively toward all-English classes.

But opponents say that test scores also rose for English speakers, suggesting that the end of bilingual classes was not the cause of the improved scores. They point to reduced class sizes and more time spent on test preparation as possible causes of higher test scores.

In Maine, the doctor-assisted suicide question follows a decade of work by Grover, 49. A registered nurse who worked in intensive care units, she felt prepared for the consequences when her father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1988. "But the last six months of his life were hellish, just absolutely hellish," Grover said. "As he moved along toward the end, he said, 'This just isn't right.' "

A manager at a utility company, Stan Grover wanted to end his life but he feared that Darlene would lose her nursing license and his wife would be denied life insurance benefits. He died in 1991 at age 66.

That year, Grover persuaded a state lawmaker to introduce a right-to-die bill in the Legislature. When it failed to move, supporters gathered more than 50,000 signatures and $1.6 million to back a ballot question. If approved, the Maine Death with Dignity Act would allow doctors to prescribe fatally large doses of painkillers to terminally ill adults with a prognosis of less than six months to live.

Two doctors would have to confirm the prognosis. The patient would have to be referred to a psychologist, a pain specialist and a hospice worker to discuss other end-of-life options. Two waiting periods are built into the process.

The law is modeled on a ballot question approved in Oregon. In its first two years, 1998 and 1999, 43 people invoked the Oregon law to end their lives.

Opponents include the Maine Medical Assn., the state hospice association and the Roman Catholic Church, which have spent more than $1 million combined against the measure. They say that the bill could harm patients when they have received bad news and are the most vulnerable, and that Maine should work harder to improve hospice and other end-of-life options.

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