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Ready or Not, Voters Had Chances to Take the Initiative

Of 202 ballot measures, marijuana legalization and bilingual education were hot-button issues.

November 07, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to weaning the nation off bilingual education, Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz succeeded in Massachusetts, arguably the most liberal state in the nation, and says he's on a roll. Never mind that a similar issue was defeated in Colorado, he says.

When it comes to legalizing marijuana, Bruce Mirken hoped to win over Nevada, with its brothels and other assorted vices, but was trounced. Now he's regrouping.

Few other initiatives and referendums confronting voters across the country Tuesday -- 202 measures in 40 states -- addressed such basic social issues: Should buying and smoking marijuana for personal enjoyment be legalized and how best to help immigrant children learn in the classroom?

Indeed, Tuesday's election results have forced government agencies across the country to deal with new challenges, while letting others off the hook.

Florida voters put the onus on educators to enact two measures that were narrowly approved -- one that requires that 4-year-olds be offered a "high quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity" and another to limit class sizes.

Lawmakers in two states, on the other hand, won't have to wrestle with tax cuts, while two other states won new revenue sources. A Massachusetts measure to eliminate the state income tax, and an Arkansas initiative to abolish certain food and medicine taxes, were both defeated. Legislatures in Tennessee and North Dakota were given voter blessing to launch lotteries.

Oregon voters rejected as too pricey a $20-billion plan to offer medical coverage to all residents, and also turned back a proposal to require labeling of certain genetically engineered foods. They approved, however, raising the state's minimum wage next year to $6.90 an hour.

Missouri voters rejected a quadruple increase in cigarette taxes, while Arizona voters supported a doubling of cigarette taxes.

Voters similarly were contrary on the question of bilingual education.

Massachusetts was the first state to adopt bilingual education. With the state reversing itself, Unz said it's time for federal action. Unz successfully campaigned to replace bilingual education programs with English immersion in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000.

"It's ridiculous to keep doing this state by state with initiative campaigns. At some point, the federal government should take up the issue," Unz said Wednesday. The Massachusetts measure passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Unz contended that the measure was defeated in Colorado because Patricia Stryker, a wealthy medical equipment heiress whose child is learning Spanish, contributed $3.1 million to finance an advertising blitz to defeat the measure.

Advocates of bilingual education warned Wednesday that politicians shouldn't be too quick to run with the Massachusetts vote, and should take Colorado's vote to heart.

Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Assn. for Bilingual Education, said that, based on a voting analysis, 92% of Massachusetts' Latino community -- who best know the value of bilingual education -- opposed the English-immersion measure.

Additionally, she said, the measure failed to carry in some of the state's most enlightened communities, including Boston, Cambridge and Amherst.

Colorado's defeat, she said, reflected voters' understanding that "the issue of bilingual education is complex and can't be addressed in 10-word sound bites. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to anything in education."

While Unz claimed his issue gained momentum Tuesday, the push to legalize marijuana clearly hit a roadblock in Nevada. Less dramatic measures -- to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Arizona, and to divert marijuana users to drug programs rather than jail in Ohio -- also failed to win voter support.

The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, with help from three wealthy benefactors, spent more than $2 million on the Nevada measure, but won the support of only 39% of the voters.

Mirken, spokesman for the marijuana advocacy group, said Nevada was targeted for philosophical and logistical reasons. Voters two years ago approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and gathering enough signatures to put the issue on Tuesday's ballot was manageable.

"And Nevadans do have a bit of an independent, libertarian streak, and our research indicated they might be receptive to this," he said.

But Nevadans are a conservative lot "who don't want their loved ones exposed to the dangers of more drugs being available," said Sandy Heverly, executive director of Stop DUI, which campaigned alongside law enforcement agencies to defeat the pot issue.

"Nevada has her vices ... and it leads people to believe anything is acceptable here," she said. "It's not. Their agenda -- to legalize drugs in Nevada today and then in Anytown, USA, tomorrow -- won't be tolerated."

Mirken conceded Wednesday that the nation may not be ready to change its attitude toward the recreational smoking of marijuana. "We knew that would be a substantial leap for people, but it was time to put it on the table in a serious way. We ran into a conservative, Republican trend. We've got some thinking and strategizing to do before we attempt it again."

In the meantime, the group would continue to champion the medicinal use of marijuana, he said.

Of the 202 ballot measures nationwide, 53 were initiated by voter petitions and close to half of them were approved, according to an analysis by the Initiative and Referendum Institute and http://www.ballotwatch.org.

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