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States Take the Initiative

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from the magazine

States Take the Initiative

The already-high-stakes 2022 election season will also feature a host of state ballot measures on hot-button issues. Summer 2022
Politics and law

With control of Congress and 36 governorships up for grabs, the 2022 elections are shaping up to be transformational. In some states, voters will get their say on hugely consequential issues lower down the ballot, in direct-democracy initiatives on various hot-button issues, ranging from abortion to gun rights to labor and tax policy. And given recent news, we’re likely to see more such initiatives in coming elections.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, overturning Roe v. Wade, has elevated the debate about abortion initiatives in five states—the most in any year to this point. In two states, Kentucky and Kansas, voters will choose whether to amend their respective state constitutions to deny explicitly that any language in their founding documents implies a right to an abortion. The amendments respond to a series of state court rulings in places like California, Minnesota, Illinois, and New Jersey that resemble Roe v. Wade in holding that state constitutions guarantee abortion rights. After the Kansas supreme court issued one such ruling in April 2019, the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature tried to create an initiative for voters to amend the constitution in 2020 but could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to get the issue on the ballot after five Republicans voted against it. All five have subsequently left the legislature or been defeated in GOP primaries, and the legislature has since voted successfully to place the measure on the ballot in an election taking place in early August. The measure has received strong support from religious organizations, including the Catholic Church in Kansas, which has donated some $750,000 to the political campaign for it. Leading the opposition is the ACLU, which has so far contributed some $235,000 to defeating it.

In Kentucky, religious organizations want to add a clause to the constitution like the one proposed in Kansas, explicitly denying any right to abortion. Voters in four other states (Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Louisiana) have already passed such amendments. Conversely, Vermont voters will get their say on a Right to Personal Reproductive Autonomy Amendment, which would enshrine the right to abortion in that state’s constitution. The measure is being promoted by the state’s ACLU and Planned Parenthood chapters and opposed by religious groups and Vermonters for Good Government, which fears that the passage of the amendment might make taxpayers responsible for funding abortions, fertility treatments, gender-transformation surgeries, and other procedures related to reproduction. The California legislature, meantime, has placed an initiative on the ballot that would explicitly add language to its constitution guaranteeing a right to abortion. In Montana, voters will decide on a law declaring that infants born alive during an abortion procedure are persons and must receive medical care. Supporters placed the law on the ballot after the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, vetoed a similar measure in 2019.

Unionization is on the ballot in Illinois and Tennessee, albeit in different ways. In recent years, a wave of right-to-work legislation has swept the country. Four states bordering Illinois (Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kentucky) have adopted laws giving workers the right to opt out of unions. Alarmed, union allies in the Illinois legislature have now placed on the state’s ballot a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to collective bargaining in both the private and public sectors. The proposed amendment not only gives workers the right to bargain but also explicitly states that Illinois may not pass laws restricting unions’ ability to negotiate over wages and benefits, as well as “other terms and conditions of employment.” While the amendment has gained the support of many unions in Illinois, the expansive nature of the language in the ballot initiative has sparked opposition from employer groups, including the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

Tennessee, meantime, was one of the first states to adopt right-to-work, shortly after Congress gave states that option in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Bolstered by research showing that right-to-work states have vastly outperformed required-unionization states on private-sector job growth over the last two decades, Tennessee now wants to join nine other states that have enshrined right-to-work protections in their constitutions. The state has been particularly effective at grabbing new manufacturing jobs and winning business relocations from unionization states like California in recent years.

The unexpectedly robust rebound in tax revenues after the Covid-induced economic lockdowns has left many states flush with cash. A ballot initiative in Colorado will give voters a chance to cut the state’s income-tax rate to 4.40 percent, from 4.55 percent—an estimated $500 million reduction in revenue. This would be the state’s second voter-approved cut in two years: in 2020, Colorado residents approved a reduction from 4.63 percent to the current level, and Democratic governor Jared Polis backed the initiative. Are Colorado voters in the mood for more? Maybe. Polis recently said that the state should aim to eliminate its income tax and find better, less economically painful, ways to raise revenues.

Massachusetts Democrats want to take their state in a dramatically different direction. Local Democrats have approved a state ballot initiative that seeks to raise taxes by $2 billion. Voters will get to weigh in on the issue this November, amid increasingly good news on state finances. In April, Massachusetts collected $2 billion more in tax revenues from its residents than anticipated, and Republican governor Charlie Baker has been negotiating for tax cuts, even as Democrats ask voters for a whopping hike.

The right to bear arms is never out of the news for long. The Supreme Court’s recent Bruen decision has kept a spotlight on gun rights, and citizens of several states will have their chance to vote on Second Amendment issues this fall. In November, Iowa citizens will vote on a constitutional amendment to “keep and bear arms.” Currently, 44 other states have similar reinforcements of the Second Amendment in their constitutions (California, New York, and Maryland are among the six that do not). One Iowa legislative supporter of the initiative said that the amendment is an attempt to set up obstacles for “liberal judges” who are “willing to just take away your right to keep and bear arms.” Democrats have opposed the amendment on grounds that it might make it harder to modify the state’s gun laws.

Given the long lead time necessary to place a referendum on the ballot in most states, this year’s initiatives are the result of momentum created before our current news cycles. But given timely policy debates over issues like abortion and gun rights, it seems likely that what voters in some states will decide over the next few months will set the stage for more direct-democracy campaigns.

Photo: bizoo_n/iStock

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