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Ballot Measures Mostly Draw Scowls From Voters

'I think people just weren't in a mood for initiatives,' one expert says. Power shifting and limits on taxes and spending are spurned.

November 10, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

In this off-year election, voters across the country defeated a range of ballot initiatives -- lashing out at ideologically driven arguments and rejecting tax cuts in favor of putting money into infrastructure and education.

Of the 18 citizen-driven initiatives put before voters Tuesday, two were approved. Nearly all of the rejected items dealt with limits on taxes and expenditures or with proposed shifts of power from legislators to governors or vice-versa.

One measure that was rejected -- Initiative 912 in Washington state -- sought to repeal a gasoline tax of 9.5 cents a gallon passed by the Legislature in the spring. Rural counties supported the measure, but voters in Seattle and other large cities shot it down.

"This was a bad year to be an initiative," said Jennie Bowser, a ballot measures specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Bowser said that from 1999 to 2004, the national average passage rate for citizen initiatives was 51% -- making the percentage passed this year "remarkably low." By contrast, the number of initiatives under consideration was about triple the normal amount, Bowser said.

"I think people just weren't in a mood for initiatives," she said. "They were burned out. They were overwhelmed."

Prominent among the measures that fell to defeat were four California initiatives championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Californians said no to a cap on state spending that would have increased the governor's power to make budget cuts. They also refused to stiffen work rules for teachers, change the rules on political funding for public employees' unions and shift redistricting powers from state legislators to a panel of retired judges.

California voters spurned four other initiatives on the ballot, including a proposal to require parental notification when a minor seeks an abortion.

In New York, voters chose not to transfer budget-writing authority from the governor to the Legislature.

As in California, Ohio voters declined to take redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. "The two redistricting measures, in California and Ohio -- both sort of bombed," said Tim Story, an elections specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. In adhering to existing laws on redistricting, voters opted not to engage in "an arcane, esoteric process" that often confounds even experts on such matters, Story said.

"These were very, very complex propositions," he said. "Redistricting is so removed from people's day-to-day lives. It is not like you are talking about roads or education reform. I think voters, when they tend not to understand things, they vote no."

Roads -- not their pocketbooks -- apparently were very much on the minds of Washington drivers when they turned down a chance to lower their fuel costs.

In April, with gas prices soaring, many in the state had objected when lawmakers added the 9.5-cent tax with little public discussion.

"Then Katrina happened," said Charles Royer, a former Seattle mayor. "Even though gas prices were way up, people started talking about infrastructure again. That was a word people used back in the 1970s and 1980s. It had gone out of style until the levees broke in New Orleans."

Voters in heavily populated King and Snohomish counties supported the Legislature's plan to use the gas-tax increase to rebuild the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway that runs along the Seattle waterfront and up the coast. Television ads that showed chunks of freeway falling down during the 1989 Bay Area earthquake were especially effective, Royer said.

"So what we saw here was kind of a jolt of responsibility instead of an earthquake," he said.

Voting a week ahead of the rest of the nation, Coloradans last Tuesday opted to suspend a revenue-cutting program known as TABOR, or Taxpayers' Bill of Rights. The move allows the state to spend about $3.7 billion instead of refunding it to taxpayers over the next five years.

Supporters and opponents of TABOR spent about $10 million promoting their positions, said Floyd Ciruli, president of a nonpartisan polling company in Denver. One ad in support of repealing TABOR showed acting University of Colorado President Hank Brown predicting dramatic tuition increases if the revenue giveback were allowed to continue.

"Colorado was sort of unique in that it was not attempting to limit taxes, but rather to expand them," Ciruli said.

Far from a harbinger of a taxpayer revolt, Ciruli said, the passage of Colorado's Referendum C signaled "that after a long recession, the real pressure is to fill gaps and to add some revenue to the system."

Ciruli said recent polls had shown that voters were less concerned about reducing high taxes than about funding education or repairing roads.

"The issue agenda has shifted from the '90s and early 2000s, when the focus was on lower taxes and limiting government," he said. "Now we are spending most of our time figuring out how to meet essential services."

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