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Forget presidential race, ballot propositions could decide policy in 2016

CNBC News


The presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may be dominating headlines this election cycle, but there are numerous propositions on state ballots this November that together could have just as significant an effect on policy as the victor in the presidential race.

Thirty-four states have a combined total of 157 propositions on the ballot in November, according to the University of Southern California's Initiative and Referendum Institute. California alone has 17 propositions. All told, multiple states will vote on whether to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage, issue new bonds and expand gambling among various measures.

"If you look at the things that are directly affecting people's lives, I actually think state propositions have big big effects," said John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute. " in some respects could be more important than the way the presidential election would touch people's lives."

Especially given current levels of gridlock in Congress and inaction on issues in state capitols, some organizers advocating for various propositions said the process provides a way to move forward on policy when a state legislature proves unable to pass the bill or there is a disconnect between politicians and popular opinion.

Some states require voter approval to issue new bonds, and six states will get the chance to vote on a total of about $12 billion in new bonds, according to a report from the University of Southern California's Initiative and Referendum Institute. The report also noted that the most expensive proposal regarding bonds is California's Proposition 51 that would authorize issuing $9 billion in bonds for educational facilities.

Per that same report, the "most common subject of ballot propositions historically and this year" are taxes. Florida voters already approved a ballot proposition on Aug. 30 that provided property tax breaks for solar energy, and numerous others will be on ballots Nov. 8. that could have effects such as taxing tobacco or providing property tax exemptions.

The federal minimum wage remains $7.25, but voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington will be able to vote on whether to increase their own state's minimum wage. In Arizona, Colorado and Maine, the ballot proposition asks voters whether the minimum wage should be increased to $12, and in Washington state the proposition asks about raising the minimum wage to $13.50. In Arizona and Washington, the proposition includes paid sick leave as well.

As of Aug. 1, no state had a minimum wage higher than $10, according to data from the Department of Labor. Bill Scheel, the campaign manager for AZ Healthy Working Families, a political group pushing the proposal, said Arizona's ballot measure and others like it are a reaction to congressional inaction.

"The lack of action at the federal level has just been building up pressure in so many states so even, you've got the ballot initiatives in four or five states, but also California and New York have accomplished it legislatively," Scheel said. "So I think it really is a commentary on how Congress has abdicated its responsibility."

The Arizona proposition has polled recently at about 60 percent support.

Across the country, state ballots have increasingly put to voters the question of whether marijuana should be legalized for medical or recreational usage. Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will be able to weigh in on fully legalizing the drug. There are also medical marijuana propositions on the ballot in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.

This year's votes come on the heels of the historic 2012 decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational marijuana usage.

If all nine states vote this coming Tuesday to ease restrictions on marijuana, then more than 25 states in total would allow for recreational or medical use. While polling has varied from state to state, at least in Maine recent polls have found legalizing recreational marijuana usage with a strong lead.

David Boyer, the campaign manager for the "Yes on 1" coalition that has been a driving force behind the Maine proposition, said the national wave surrounding marijuana ballot proposals stemmed from current dysfunction.

"It's recognition of, our current system prohibiting marijuana hasn't worked and it's cost a lot of money," Boyer said. "Some of it is a symptom of our Congress and even our local state legislature not taking up the issues the people want."

While not trends, there are a few other major propositions on state ballots that could substantially affect policy. In California, Proposition 61 would generally restrict the price state agencies pay for drugs and could mark a significant milestone if passed. The campaign has become extremely expensive with millions being spent. Polls from this fall show the proposition with a majority of support.

In Massachusetts, Question 2 would allow for an expansion in the number of charter schools in the state each year -- and has also become a high-spending fight. Recent polling is very tight.

Dom Slowey, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said Massachusetts may mark the rare state where ballot propositions are in the public eye at a level on par with the presidential candidates.

"Most of the attention has actually been focused on this ballot question," Slowey said.

And in Washington, D.C., there is a referendum on the ballot asking local residents about potential statehood.

Ann Loikow, a longtime organizer with the advocacy group DC Statehood Yes We Can, called the proposition a "significant step."

"As a process, what it marks is sort of reawakening the issue," Loikow said.