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From Ice Cream to Sows to Health Care

A myriad of measures are on ballots nationwide Tuesday. Many are pet causes.

October 30, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Should pregnant sows have more room to wallow?

Should voters be able to register on election day?

Should shoppers be told if their ice cream contains genetically altered soy?

Voters will answer these and 199 other questions Tuesday as they sort through state ballot measures large and small.

Missouri voters will have a chance to quadruple their cigarette tax, to 72 cents a pack. South Dakotans will have a shot at legalizing industrial hemp. Tennessee could get a state lottery. Oklahoma might ban cockfighting. Colorado and Massachusetts could eliminate bilingual education in favor of a strict English immersion curriculum.

And in Nevada, voters could make it legal to carry marijuana for personal use. The way the referendum is worded, it would let most adults possess up to 250 marijuana cigarettes. That has not won many fans in law enforcement.

"Any time I've seen anyone with a larger quantity than just a few cigarettes, it's been a trafficking situation," said Las Vegas Metro Police Sgt. Rick Barela.

The most ambitious initiatives will be on the ballot in Oregon. A campaign to raise the minimum wage to $6.90 an hour, well above the national minimum of $5.15, looks likely to succeed. An effort to require labels on all products containing genetically engineered ingredients is on shakier ground, as biotech firms and other opponents have poured more than $4.5 million into trying to defeat the measure.

Then there's the hotly contested drive to mandate universal health insurance. Measure 23 would ensure that every Oregon resident have full coverage, including dental and vision insurance, long-term nursing care and access to mental health treatment. It would be funded by two new taxes: one on personal income and one on employers' payrolls. A poll this month suggested that the measure probably would fail.

With so many fierce political races across the nation, ballot measures in many states have been receiving limited attention. The majority of them are rather dull -- bond issues, election reform, deletion of obsolete statutes from state constitutions. But the 202 measures facing voters in 40 states include several dozen initiatives placed on the ballot by citizens determined to put their pet causes to the ultimate test: democracy.

Many of these activists don't have the money to do much more than put up a Web site and hand out brochures, perhaps buy a few newspaper ads. Still, whether they're fighting to free pregnant sows from cages in Florida, to allow same-day voter registration in California or to reinstate term limits in Idaho, activists of all stripes promote their causes with passion.

Agricultural Commissioner Roger Johnson is one of a few Democrats in statewide office in North Dakota. He's also fighting with all he has for an unusual initiative: To pay up to $10,000 to a college graduate who agrees to stick around.

Johnson says about 65% of North Dakota's college graduates leave the state for bigger, more lively (and, no doubt, warmer) regions. The state is rated first in the U.S. in high school graduation, first in college matriculation and 34th for the percentage of the population with a college degree.

"After they get the degree, they leave," he said.

To keep them, Johnson wants the state to forgive up to $5,000 in student loans and offer a tax credit of up to $5,000 over five years. He estimates it will cost North Dakota about $17 million a year, out of a $2-billion annual budget. Many Republicans say that's just too expensive.

"You can bury your head in the sand as long as you want," Johnson said, "but our young people keep moving away."

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