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Ballot initiatives test mood of US voters, from teacher tenure to tax hikes

Questions on the ballot in Tuesday's midterm election signal not just local priorities but also national trends on issues such as gun rights, marijuana, teacher tenure, and labeling on genetically engineered food.

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    A black bear is seen at the Maine Willdlife Park in New Gloucester. On Nov. 4, Maine voters decide on a proposal that would ban the use of bait, dogs, and traps to hunt black bears.
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For most voters this week, the “main course” is the choice of a governor or a member of Congress. But tantalizing side dishes are on the menu in many states, as ballot initiatives give citizens a direct say on issues ranging from food labels to a constitutional right to hunt.

The outcomes will signal not just local priorities but also, in some cases, national trends.

Drawing on information compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, here are nine issues to watch, and where to watch them:

Recommended: Ten governor's races to watch in 2014

Schools

Among a number of education-related measures, the hottest item may be a Missouri measure that would amend the state constitution to reform teacher tenure. Teachers would be promoted and paid (and demoted or dismissed) based largely on evaluation of student performance.

Gambling

A Rhode Island measure would open the door to casino-style gambling at a Newport facility, with proponents citing the promise of jobs and revenue for the city. Other states, including Colorado and South Dakota, also have measures to expand gambling. But Massachusetts voters will weigh whether to do a U-turn and stop a previously approved casino-building effort before it launches. Casino companies have been spending big money on ads to try to keep Massachusetts in their game.

Food labeling

Oregon and Colorado have initiatives calling for new labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). Backers say the move would give consumers information so they can choose whether they want to buy genetically engineered foods or not. Companies that develop GMOs are key opponents of the measure. Foes make the case that the GMO foods are safe, that compliance would be costly and open the door to litigation over labeling, and that consumers can already choose foods with a non-GMO label.

Minimum wage

Several states may raise their minimum pay at a time when the federal minimum remains at $7.25 per hour. The measures seek to raise the minimum hourly pay rate in South Dakota (to $8.50 as of the start of 2015, with the wage indexed to inflation after that), Arkansas (a three-step hike to $8.50 by the start of 2017), Nebraska (a two-step hike to $9 by the start of 2016), and Alaska (to $9.75 by start of 2016 and indexed to inflation thereafter). Also, in Illinois, voters will cast a nonbinding vote as legislators seek a signal on whether residents support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

Election rules

Oregon will decide whether to shift to a “top two” primary system, where primary elections allow the two biggest vote-getters in a race to face off in the general election, regardless of what party they’re from. Proponents say the change would empower state voters, collectively, to select candidates. (Currently Oregon has a “closed” primary system, where only Republican voters decide who that party’s nominee will be, etc.) Some critics complain that the change would, in effect, shut small political parties out of the general election.

Marijuana

Some states are considering whether to follow Colorado and Washington State toward marijuana legalization for adults. Voters in Alaska and Oregon may OK state-regulated production, sale, and use. The District of Columbia may legalize home cultivation for personal use (up to six plants) and possession (up to 2 ounces). More on these and other pot-related measures here.

Guns

Washington State already requires criminal and public-safety background checks before someone can buy a firearm from a licensed dealer. A ballot measure would extend background checks to private sales and transfers. The measure would provide exceptions, such as for temporary transfers for self-defense and hunting. A dueling measure, backed by gun-rights advocates, would bar the state from having background checks that are more stringent than federal law.

Hunting

Then there’s the initiative about the right to arm bears. Well, not quite, but a Maine ballot measure would outlaw the use of hounds, bait, or traps in the hunting of bears, with proponents saying such methods are cruel and unsporting. Michigan voters will weigh in on whether there should be wolf-hunting in the state. Mississippi could become the 18th state to establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish, and Alabama will consider whether to modify its constitution to enshrine hunting as the “preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.”

Taxes

No election year would be complete without an array of tax measures on the ballot. A Georgia measure would set a constitutional cap on the state’s income-tax rate. A North Dakota initiative would place a constitutional ban on home-sale taxes. Illinois residents will give an advisory thumbs up or down to the idea of raising school funds through a 3 percent tax on incomes over $1 million. And Massachusetts voters will consider whether the state’s gas tax should no longer be indexed to inflation.

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