Referend “Ums”

In the 1990s, liberals worried that conservatives had hijacked the initiative and referenda processes in states; activists found ingenious ways to harness popular passions (and prejudices) and starve the beast of government at the local level.

But a broad look at the I and R landscape for ’06 suggests that the left is fighting back.

Here are some questions that November’s statewide elections might help answer:

Do pro-lifers favor a total abortion ban? — In South Dakota, pro-choicers gambled. Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed a bill that would ban all abortions except when the life of the mother is at stake. Instead of letting the legislation meander its way to the Supreme Court, opponents forced proponents of the ban to show their cards. They petitioned the ban onto the November ballot, and polls show that a strong plurality of South Dakotans would oppose it in its current form. (59% would favor a prohibition with rape and incest exceptions added in.) The courts will still have their say, but if the pro-choicers succeed in a culturally conservative state, it could

Can Democrats use stem cells as a wedge issue? In Missouri, the language of an embryonic stem cell research initiative has become a point of debate in the Senate race, and Democrats are trying to use it as a wedge to separate suburbanites from the conservative coalition. It’s working in one sense: Republicans from the conservative governor on down are in favor of the initiative, which amends the state constitution to specifically permit embyonic stem cell research. Though even Republican strategists deny that the ’04 gay marriage amendments lifted turnout in competitive states, Democrats are convinced that they surrendered the cultural values territory to Republicans by not marshaling their resources to get D-friendly initiatives on the ballot. One second-order goal for Democrats: paint opposition to the research as extreme and force pro-life candidates to go out of their way to prove their bona fides to pro-life interest groups. Republicans have used the same tactic to tar Democrats who have reservations about same-sex marriage but don’t oppose domestic partnerships or civil unions. Here’s the problem for Dems: it’s a midterm. The base turns out; independent and marginal voters don’t. Will enough suburban women come to the polls to offset pro-lifers who we know will vote?

Will minimum wage increase initiatives spike Dem turnout? Minimum wage hikes are on the ballot in CA, OK, MO, AZ, CO, MT, NV and OH.

Will the landowners of the country unite? Keying off the SCOTUS ruling in Kelo, eminent domain initiatives could make the ballot in a half dozen states. They’d protect landowners from unfair takings (to a degree) and ensure remuneration for the land-loss. Liberals worry that these initiatives amount to nothing more than the fuel for more urban sprawl.

Are voters becoming less tax-averse? There are trendlines — Virginia voters wildly approved of a tax-hiking governor; Colordans voted (narrowly) to allow their government some flexibility within the confines of its pioneering taxpayer bill of rights’ law. (TABOR). In WA, voters axed a gas tax repeal. That said, voters across the small government West oppose anything that smacks of a tax increase and have roundly rejected measures that increase the size of government, like initiatives requiring universal health insurance.

According to the left-leaning Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, pro-TABOR amendments have been placed on the ballot in Maine, Oklahoma and Ohio (although Ohio’s is watered down). And there’s a “high probability” that TABOR inits will get on the ballot in MI, MO, NV, OR, MT and WI. Main backers include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks (formerly Citizens for a Sound Economy).

The effect of these initiatives would give special rights to big landowners and developers, whose demands for compensation would not be able to be met by local governments, and can use the new law to remove all barriers to growth, resulting in massive sprawl. This issue is moving in California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington.

A side note: same-sex marriage bans are possible in at least ten states including VA, CO and WI. In CO, a separate initiative would legalize domestic partnerships.