Lawmakers Defer to Voters on Tax, Budget Issues

Written by Elaine S. Povich, Staff Writer, for Stateline, the daily news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
June 11, 2014

Many state legislatures have sent contentious issues to the voters this year. Nationwide, lawmakers in 36 states have put at least 86 measures on the November ballot, according to Ballotpedia, a non-profit organization that tracks ballot measures initiated by lawmakers as well as citizens. That number is on pace with earlier years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which reported a total of 115 ballot measures in 2012 and 112 in 2010.

Sixty-one out of the 86 questions are proposed constitutional amendments. There are 13 non-constitutional initiatives, six proposed state laws, five veto referendums that would undo laws approved by the legislature and signed by the governor, and one automatic ballot referral (which appears without legislative or citizen action) currently certified for 2014 statewide ballots so far.

In Missouri, the question is whether to raise the state sales tax by three-quarters of a cent per dollar and put the money toward transportation projects. Missouri officials say the tax increase would generate an estimated $534 million a year, with 90 percent of the money going to state projects and 10 percent to local projects. It would run for 10 years.

A Maryland measure would create a transportation trust fund for the construction and maintenance of highways.

Citizen-initiated measures have fallen in and out of favor over the years. “When the process was new in the early 1900s, there were lots and lots of them on the ballots. The states were new and they were formulating their laws,” said ballot initiative expert Jennie Bowser, who worked for NCSL before striking out on her own as a consultant.

The use of citizen-driven initiatives dwindled until they were revived in the 1970s and really took off in the 1990s with an average of 69 a year, Bowser said. But they have slowed recently, with only 42 in 2010 and 2012. She said the vision of the “passionate volunteers” mounting a petition drive to get an issue on the ballot is mostly a myth. More likely, interest groups pay people to gather the signatures necessary in each state.

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