Five ballot initiatives to watch Tuesday night


By Eric Boehm |

Sure, the U.S. Senate races and control of Congress will be in the spotlight on all the major cable news networks Tuesday night.

VOTING MATTERS: In some states, voters get a direct say on public policy in Tuesday’s election.

In some states — I’m looking at you Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado, among others — there will be closely watched races to decide who the next governor will be. And control of state legislatures from coast-to-coast will be up for grabs as well on Election Day 2014.

But Tuesday isn’t just about electing the people who will make big decisions for the next two, four or six years.

It’s also about the people making big decisions on their own.

Most states allow some form of direct democracy by allowing voters to weigh in on ballet measures, initiatives and referendums. Here’s five interesting ballot questions to watch on Tuesday.

Arkansas could shut down “dry counties”

Prohibition could finally come to an end in Arkansas, the state with more “dry” counties than any other.

DRY AS A BONE: Shaded counties are “dry” in Arkansas. (Source: Ballotpedia)

As it stands now, any county in the state can prohibit the sale, purchase or possession of alcohol, making it a crime to do something as innocuous as driving through that county with a case of beer in the back of your car.

Driving through Arkansas with a case of beer can be tricky, considering it has 37 dry counties and another 38 “mixed counties” that allow alcohol but contain municipalities where it is illegal.

The ballot question, Issue 4, would enshrine the legality of booze in the Arkansas state constitution and override the county-level bans.

Advocates of the change say it would increase freedom and create jobs. Interestingly, they say full legalization of alcohol will reduce drunk-driving accidents and binge drinking, because people won’t have to drive as far to bars and will be able to moderate their consumption.

Opponents argue that the government should be in charge of regulating booze because it causes social harm and say the constitutional amendment would remove local control over the issue.

Alaska and Oregon consider legalizing marijuana (DC, too!)

A year after Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana via a ballot initiative, two other western states are in line to join them. Maybe.

In Alaska, Ballot Question 2 would make it legal for anyone over age 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and would legalize the growing and sale of the drug. Local governments would be allowed to ban marijuana-related businesses if they wanted to.

In Oregon, anyone over the age of 21 would be allowed to possess up to 8 ounces of marijuana.

In both states, law enforcement groups have lined up against the usual crowd of libertarians and drug policy reformers. Polls show that neither Alaska or Oregon will be landslide victories for the legalization crowd.

In Washington, D.C., though, legalization is basically a slam-dunk. Polls there show moret han 60 percent of the population supports legalization and on Tuesday the nation’s capital will likely thumb its collective nose at the federal government that still insists on waging an expensive, violent and racist war against marijuana.

Washington’s competing Second Amendment ballot questions

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CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS: Washington State voters could chose to require background checks while also banning them.

Gun-control advocates and Second Amendment lovers both got their way in Washington state by getting separate questions on the ballot about the relationship between government and firearms. Now, the election will decide who wins.

Initiative 594 would require background checks for all gun purchases in the state, with a few exceptions for things like antique firearms. It would include purchases made at private gun shows in the mandatory background checks, something most states do not currently require.

But on the flip side, Initiative 591 would ban the state from requiring background checks for gun sales and would prohibit the state government from confiscating firearms without due process.

Polls seem to indicate the mandatory background checks question will pass. It’s been helped along by some deep-pocketed advertising from the likes of Washington’s own Bill and Melinda Gates.

If both questions were to somehow win a majority of the vote – thus requiring the state to do background checks and also banning the state from doing background checks – well, how can you not chuckle at the prospect of that outcome? Democracy is great, isn’t it?

Minimum wage increases in four states

Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will be asked if they want to raise the state’s minimum wage rate. But in each case, the increase would be more than a one-time thing (see table).

Image from Ballotpedia

MINIMUM WAGE, MAXIMUM INCREASES: Four states are considering minimum wage increases this year that would continue into coming years too. (Source: Ballotpedia)

If everyone heading to the polls had a degree in economics, they would probably know that increasing the minimum wage doesn’t really help anyone — it just adds to the cost of doing business and any extra cash in your wallet would be offset by higher prices everywhere else. It also makes it harder for the young and unskilled workers to find a job.

But most voters don’t have a degree in economics, which is why minimum-wage increases generally have been successful when offered as ballot questions in the past.

In each state, unions like the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association have set up front groups with positive sounding names like “Nebraskans for Better Wages” and funneled millions of dollars into the campaigns.

Phoenix considers pension reform proposal

States are still mostly kicking-the-can on pension issues, despite the fact that underfunded public pensions are a $2 trillion (and growing) problem, even by the pension fund’s own rosy estimates.

But after watching Detroit go down the drain and several large towns and small cities in California facing bankruptcy, some local governments are getting serious about making changes.

Voters in Phoenix will be asked whether they want to move all new city workers into 401(k)-style retirement plans and close the existing defined benefit pension system. Current employees and retirees won’t be affected by the chance, so the city will still be on the hook for $1.5 billion in unfunded benefits owed to those groups, but making the change would keep the situation from getting worse.

It also doesn’t affect firefighters and police officers – so it’s pretty much the most basic kind of reform possible.

Still, public sector unions are standing opposed to the changes. They argue the changes would decrease the average Phoenix city worker’s pension by 14 percent.

But those same pensions are threatening the city’s finances at their current level.

An actuarial analysis by the Reason Foundation found the changes would save about $1.6 billion during the next 25 years.