Monday, November 10, 2014

Ballot initiatives: Election 2014


Alexis de Tocqueville (above, from Wikimedia Commons) was impressed by local self-government.
There was more to Election Day than met the eye. Specifically, there were a number of state and local initiatives that bore directly on our common life. In nearly all of these cases I was unaware of the vote; the information below comes from the sources listed at the end of the piece.

Transportation. San Francisco and Seattle passed propositions that would expand public transit operations and routes, and in Seattle's case prevent proposed transit cuts by raising the city sales tax. San Francisco's Proposition A also set aside funding for 27 miles of bike routes, as well as traffic signal and crosswalk improvements for pedestrian safety. Other transit improvements were passed in Alameda County (Oakland), California; Arlington County (suburban Washington), Virginia; Clayton County (suburban Atlanta), Georgia; and the State of Rhode Island. Transportation measures lost in Alachua and Pinellas Counties (Gainesville and St. Petersburg, respectively), Florida, and Austin, Texas, while Massachusetts voters blocked a "cost-of-living" increase in that state's gasoline tax (which funds a variety of transportation projects). The Austin measure, which would have created a light-rail system, had led rather decisively in pre-election polling, with analysts there blaming the defeat on low turnout by transit-loving younger voters.

Environmental Conservation. Statewide referenda to dedicate funds (generally, existing rather than new money) to environmental conservation were passed in Florida, Maine, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Florida and Maine were focused on water quality and wetlands--in Florida's case involving a long-term commitment and billions of dollars. New Jersey shifted money within the environmental budget towards conservation of open spaces, while Rhode Island focused on clean-up of brownfields (abandoned, contaminated industrial sites). Beaufort County, South Carolina passed legislation to make it easier for the county to purchase environmentally-sensitive property.

Fracking. Two cities--Athens, Ohio, and Denton, Texas--as well as San Benito County, California, passed bans on the energy extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing. "Fracking" has been a key element in the increase in American oil production, not to mention the drop in gasoline prices and manufacturing operations moving back to these shores. It has been alleged by environmentalists to contaminate drinking water and cause earthquakes, with producer interests vigorously contesting those claims. The overall evidence is inconclusive to date but does tend to unnerve people, apparently even in Texas. Sure, Denton is a university town, but, Texas.

City Development. Two California towns, Dublin and Union City, defeated attempts to override open space protections. San Francisco defeated an attempt to undo their clever, market-based parking rate innovations.

Minimum wage. Voters in four states, all of which tilt Republican in presidential and most statewide elections, approved increases in the state minimum wage over the next 1-3 years. Arkansas and South Dakota will rise to $8.50 an hour, Nebraska to $9.00 and Alaska to $9.75. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Casinos. Voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and South Dakota voted to add or expand casino gambling in those states. California and Colorado rejected casino referenda, albeit the "no" campaigns in those states (as was the case in Cedar Rapids in 2013) were primarily funded by other casinos that feared new competition.

Marijuana. Voters in the states of Alaska and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, passed initiatives legalizing marijuana. These, of course, require federal acquiescence--or at least--passivity, as marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law. This is particularly true for the District of Columbia, which is not a sovereign state and so anything it does requires congressional approval. A majority of Florida voters approved a measure legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, but it failed of passage because it fell short of the required 60 percent threshold. It passed in Guam, though. There were a variety of local initiatives in six states, notably all blue states or at least purple (Colorado, New Mexico). An Arizona referendum in 2016 would be interesting to watch.

I find a lot of this activity encouraging. It shows voters in many places--though by no means everywhere--are thinking about ways to improve their quality of life and those of their neighbors, and are not shy about using public authority and funds to do so. Too many places have gotten into the habit of leveraging federal money for infrastructure and environmental improvements. The federal government can on occasion be out in front of states and localities on important issues, but can also create perverse incentives. Anyway, it's better if people are deciding the direction their own towns will take. Besides, as the Strong Towns folk have begun to mull in their most recent podcast, there's no guarantee the federal cow will be around much longer to milk for local projects.

I'm ambivalent about initiatives for three reasons. First, the economy and the environment are national if not global in scale, and sometimes need coordinated national policy responses. Economically vulnerable cities can just as easily "race to the bottom" as they can pass thoughtful initiatives (sort of like Iowa blocking passenger rail while funding the opening of a fertilizer plant). Secondly, voters do not have the ability that legislatures have to coordinate policies and balance priorities. They can pass things that individually sound good but collectively make no sense. Finally, initiatives, like other elections (and indeed legislatures), are vulnerable to manipulation by well-funded interests. Wallach and Hudak note that the "yes" side in the Alaska marijuana referendum and the "no" side in Florida vastly outspent their opponents.

I'm also terribly conflicted about marijuana legalization. Dealing with our youth as I do on a daily basis, I see that it can be abused with costly results to the individual. But you could say the same about alcohol, and indeed it's hard to justify marijuana being illegal when alcohol is legal. I wonder how I would have blogged on prohibition in 1932? The costs of marijuana law enforcement are pretty much a massive waste. So on balance I'm glad about this trend.

In all I find the upsurges of local self-government in 2014 to be as encouraging as the congressional elections were dispiriting. Discussing, even arguing local issues with your neighbors is likely to be more constructive than yelling across the country at a caricature of the other side.

SOURCES

Josh Barro, "The Strange Case of States' Penchant for Casinos," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Shaila Dewan, "State Wage Initiatives Fare Better Than Democrats," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Alex Dodds, "Voters Strongly Support Smart Growth Measures on Election Day 2014," Smart Growth America, 5 November 2014, http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2014/11/05/voters-strongly-support-smart-growth-measures-on-election-day-2014/

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, "In Denton, Texas, Voters Approve 'Unprecedented' Fracking Ban," Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2014, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-texas-fracking-20141108-story.html

Kirk Johnson, "New Marijuana Initiatives Loom as 3 Win Approval," New York Times, 6 November 2014, P8

Keenan Orfalea, "Millennials Demand Public Transportation, But Lose Out by Skipping the Voting Booth," Urbanful, 5 November 2014, http://urbanful.org/2014/11/05/millennials-demand-public-transportation-refuse-vote/?utm_source=Urbanful+Master+List&utm_campaign=4c5e5460db-November_5_Daily_Subscribers&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fdf64fbc84-4c5e5460db-197203953

Joel Ramos, "San Francisco Voters Can Improve Muni Service at the Ballot Box This November," TransForum, 31 July 2014, http://www.transformca.org/transform-blog-post/san-francisco-voters-can-improve-muni-service-ballot-box-November

"2014 Ballot Initiatives," Marijuana Policy Project, http://www.mpp.org/legislation/2014-Ballot-Initiatives.html

"2014 Measures to Watch," Transportation for America, http://t4america.org/maps-tools/state-plans-tracker/2014-votes/

Phillip A. Wallach and John Hudak, "The Nation Continues to Embrace Marijuana Legislation," FixGov: Making Government Work, 5 November 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2014/11/05-marijuana-ballot-initiatives-midterms-hudak-wallach

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