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Building Progressive Momentum: 5 Ballot Initiatives Lead the Way

From challenging Citizens United to protecting collective bargaining rights, grassroots groups are using ballot initiatives to push back against austerity initiatives and revitalize our economy.
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Union members and supporters rally for collective bargaining rights in Lansing, Michigan.

The ballot initiative process, which provides an injection of direct democracy in twenty-four states, often ends up helping the right wing. For years, deep-pocketed funders have backed ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage, restrict reproductive rights, or make it nearly impossible for elected state legislatures to raise taxes—hurting families and helping to tank state budgets.

Often, the process plays out like a game of tug-of-war. Two years ago, the rightward shift in control of state legislatures presaged a wave of legislative attacks on workers, women, immigrants, voters, and the middle class. But then a funny thing happened: Voters pushed back at the polls.

After the attack on collective bargaining in Wisconsin, voters engaged in a recall effort that flipped control of the state senate. Ohio voters last November repealed SB 5 by a wide margin, a law that would have limited collective bargaining rights for public employees. And the people of Mississippi soundly rejected an amendment claiming that life begins at conception, which would have rendered many forms of contraception illegal.

This fall, voters in some states and cities will have the chance to do more than just push back. Initiatives are on the ballot that would directly confront the destruction that austerity economics has wrought on communities, while building national momentum behind policies to revitalize our economy and protect our democracy. All kinds of issues are at stake, from workers’ rights to corporate influence in politics, to whether corporations and the luckiest few will pay their fair share in taxes. While voters will be electing a president, governors, Congress, and thousands of state legislators this November 6, here are a few places where a progressive vision will also be on the ballot:

Michigan: Guaranteeing Collective Bargaining Rights

Following attempts to roll back collective bargaining rights in states including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, voters in Michigan will have a chance to enshrine those rights in their state constitution by approving the “Protect Our Jobs” amendment. Conservative groups took to the courts in an attempt to keep the amendment off the ballot, but the state Supreme Court ultimately agreed with a lower court decision and ensured the measure will go before voters on Election Day.

As the expiration of the Bush tax cuts approaches, West Coast voters have a chance to show Congress and the nation as a whole that Americans support a responsible approach to revenue—and asking the luckiest few to pay their fair share.

A coalition of unions, small businesses, and other organizations is supporting the proposal, which would amend the state constitution by establishing “the people’s rights to organize to form, join or assist unions and to bargain collectively with public or private employers.” It would also prohibit employers or governments from interfering with those rights.

Unsurprisingly, the same corporate interests who have bankrolled legislative efforts to undermine labor in state after state also continue to fight this amendment. As of late August, according to the coalition leading the campaign, corporate spending on TV and radio ads against the proposal had reached $6.45 million (including time reserved for future ads), while only $1.73 million had been spent on ads backing the proposal. Yet despite this onslaught, an August Detroit News poll showed a 19-point margin of support for this effort to advance a positive vision of workers’ rights.

California: A Compromise Includes Millionaire’s Tax

California is one of 16 states that impose some sort of supermajority vote requirement on their state legislature if they seek to raise taxes. This has long been an obstacle to progressives seeking to avoid austerity budgets and destructive cuts. In California, ballot initiatives are one way around that obstacle. A set of competing initiatives was originally proposed for this fall’s ballot in the Golden State, including a millionaire’s tax backed by the California Federation of Teachers, the Courage Campaign, and other progressive organizations.

The measure as originally written would have permanently raised tax rates on earned income over $1 million. However, Governor Jerry Brown introduced a rival initiative (with the support of unions like the SEIU and the California Teachers Association) that he said would offer a “shared sacrifice.” That bill would have temporarily increased income tax rates on earnings over $250,000, while also increasing sales taxes.

Earlier this year, the two camps reached a compromise on a single initiative to raise both sales and income taxes. Proposition 30 would raise the sales tax from 7.25 to 7.5 percent, while creating three new high-income brackets that will see increased tax rates for the next seven years. While two other less popular tax initiatives will also be on the ballot, a July field poll showed voters favoring Proposition 30 by a margin of 54 to 38 percent.

In Oregon, the fight against austerity economics is being thrown into sharp relief by a ballot initiative that would reform a 33-year-old state corporate tax refund to the benefit of the state’s kids.

Other measures to support new or existing state revenue increases will be on the ballot this fall in both Washington and Oregon. As the expiration of the Bush tax cuts approaches, West Coast voters have a chance to show Congress and the nation as a whole that Americans support a responsible approach to revenue—and asking the luckiest few to pay their fair share.

Oregon: Putting Money into K-12 Classrooms Instead of Lining the Pockets of Corporations

In Oregon, the fight against austerity economics is being thrown into sharp relief by a ballot initiative that would reform a 33-year-old state corporate tax refund to the benefit of the state’s kids. Measure 85, or the “Corporate Kicker for K-12 Schools” initiative, would amend the state constitution so that so-called “kicker” state tax refunds—which are currently returned to corporations when tax revenues exceed predicted values by more than 2 percent for a given budget cycle—are instead invested into Oregon classrooms.

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According to Our Oregon, one of the main backers of Measure 85, the corporate “kicker” has only been triggered five times since 1989. In 2007, the legislature voted to temporarily suspend the corporate “kicker,” diverting $344 million to a surplus “rainy day fund” account instead. Since then, legislative attempts to reform or eliminate the corporate “kicker” have met stiff resistance, so proponents of reform turned in over 200,000 signatures in July to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Our Oregon claims the measure would primarily affect large out-of-state corporations, which receive the bulk of “kicker” refunds.

Oregon has proven receptive to this type of effort before. The state bucked the national austerity trend at the height of national Tea Party mania in January 2010 by approving tax increases on corporations and high-income earners at the ballot box. This year, at least some initial signs are promising. A few weeks ago, a state commission of 24 randomly selected citizens voted 19-5 in favor of a report that will be summarized in a state-issued voters’ guide recommending that voters approve the initiative (despite the fact that the initiative’s own supporters did not support the Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission process). 

Florida (Orange County): Ensuring Access to Earned Sick Days

Orange County, which includes the city of Orlando, is a swing region in the middle of a swing state, where voters will have the chance to decide on a key protection for workers that is gaining momentum across the nation. The county’s Earned Sick Time measure would ensure that workers in businesses with 15 or more employees get one hour of paid sick time for every 37 hours worked, up to about seven days of sick time a year for an average full-time worker.

Corporate interests have responded by attempting to introduce a competing and intentionally confusing ballot measure intended to appear side-by-side with the earned sick days proposal—a move described by Citizens for a Greater Orange County, the main group backing the Earned Sick Time measure, as a “sneak attack… to undermine the will of Orange County voters.”

With nearly 40 percent of private sector workers and more than 80 percent of those in the lowest-wage jobs lacking access to paid sick time nationwide, cities and states have been taking the lead in ensuring that no worker needs to worry about losing a job just because they or a family member get sick. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to pass a statewide paid sick-leave bill, and Hawaii and Massachusetts both saw progress on efforts this year. If successful, Orange County would join localities including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, the last of which just enacted their paid sick-days policy earlier this month.

Update: The fate of the Orange County Earned Sick Days initiative became even more unclear on September 11 as county commissioners voted to hire an outside attorney to review the proposal's text and report back in a month, which would prevent the measure from appearing on the November ballot. State Rep. Scott Randolph called the move "a clear setup" and "a flagrant violation of the [county] charter."

Montana: Taking On Citizens United

Somewhat lost among the momentous Supreme Court decisions this summer was the Court’s summary reversal of a 100-year-old Montana law that conflicted with Citizens United, the case that opened the floodgates to corporate money in the 2010 elections. The Court’s ruling in June of this year overturned that law, which had banned corporate contributions to political campaigns. Montana was not alone in defending their campaign finance law; their argument was joined by 22 state attorneys general. 

Organizations and coalitions, including Common Cause and Move to Amend, are simultaneously working to pass resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.

Even as the Court was considering this case, an effort was already underway in the state to qualify a ballot measure that would confront the overriding issue of corporate influence in politics. That measure, the Corporate Contributions Initiative, would “establish” it to be state policy that “corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings.” How an initiative could require officials to take a specific position on policy either logistically or legally is unclear, but even as an advisory measure, the effort could have a big impact in the growing debate over corporate personhood nationwide.

As Governor Brian Schweitzer told one reporter, “the initiative has very good prospects in Montana, but what we’re trying to do is start a prairie fire.” Indeed, other organizations and coalitions, including Common Cause and Move to Amend, are simultaneously working to pass resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. That effort was recently endorsed by President Obama himself, who noted in response to a questioner on Reddit that, “even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight [on] the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.” The President’s comment was a reminder of the role that ballot measures can play in building popular support for change on a wide range of issues—and of the need for continued grassroots pressure on these issues in every state, no matter who wins the big electoral contest this fall.


Charles Monaco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. He is the Director of Communications and New Media at the Progressive States Network.

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