Special-interest millions don't pay off

A rabbit punch to the insurance industry. A victory for abortion foes. A tolerance for limited tax increases. These were among the messages to emerge in voting on ballot propositions in 41 states Tuesday in an election that also saw some stunning defeats of well-heeled special-interest groups.

In Maryland, for instance, voters overwhelmingly upheld a landmark law banning cheap handguns despite a $4 million-plus campaign against it by the National Rifle Association.

Californians gave a favorable nod to a 25-cent increase in cigarette taxes in the face of an $18 million media assault by the tobacco industry. Perhaps the most biggest blow, however, was to the insurance industry and trial lawyers - the two main rivals in California's auto insurance war.

All three initiatives backed by the competing groups - and a fourth sponsored by a dissident insurance executive - went down to defeat in the most expensive nonpresidential campaign in American history. The only one to survive was a far-reaching measure backed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader that calls for slashing rates by more than 20 percent.

The message is ``you can't win a referendum campaign with money alone,'' says David Schmidt, editor of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Initiative & Referendum newsletter.

Abortion opponents won victories in three states that could embolden their cause nationwide, particularly in light of the victory of George Bush, who also champions their cause. In Michigan, voters approved a ban on state-financed abortions for poor women except to save the life of the mother.

Coloradans similarly voted against state-funded abortions. Residents in Arkansas approved an amendment that protects life beginning at conception and forbids state-financed abortions - a measure that was twice defeated in the state before.

In important battles on AIDS, Californians signaled that they are opposed to government management of the disease, except where convicts and sex offenders are concerned.

Voters strongly rejected an emotionally charged initiative that would have forced doctors to report AIDS patients in order to trace everyone that might have been infected. Residents, however, approved a referendum allowing AIDS testing for people accused of certain crimes.

In Oregon, voters overturned Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's order protecting homosexual state workers from discrimination. Fort Collins, Colo., voters turned down a proposed gay rights initiative by 56 to 43 percent, with 67 of 164 precincts counted.

Nuclear power continues to do well at the ballot box. A Massachusetts initiative that would have shut the state's two nuclear power plants was crushed, while Nebraskans rejected becoming the first state to withdraw from an interstate nuclear-waste compact.

On other environment-oriented issues, the decisions were decidedly mixed. Washington state voters approved a toxic waste initiative drafted by environmentalists over one put forward by big business and supported by state leaders. Californians went for a measure that will require manufacturers to disclose more information to consumers on certain household toxic products.

Montanans, however, rejected a move to require return deposits on beverage containers. South Dakotans said ``no'' to a strip-mining reclamation proposal, while Kentucky residents strongly endorsed a measure restricting strip-mining rights.

The tax revolt continues to take a hit, with voters in three states - South Dakota, Colorado, and Utah - rejecting proposals that would have substantially reduced levies.

``The tax revolt has had a rough year,'' says Patrick McGuigan, editor of the Initiative and Referendum Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

Voters are willing to go with tax increases in some states - but usually only for specific purposes. Californians' approval of a tobacco tax hike - which will go for indigent health care and fighting the effects of smoking - is one example. So is Washington's passing of the toxic cleanup initiative, which will be partly funded by a tax on hazardous substances.

Missouri voters, on the other hand, gave a strong thumbs down to a tax on certain workers and employers that would have raised money to expand the state's medicaid program.

State lotteries were approved in four states - Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho, and Minnesota - while South Dakota voters legalized gambling in Deadwood, a former haunt of Wild Bill Hickok where residents wanted money to preserve old West architecture.

English has been made the official language in Florida, Colorado, and Arizona.

An Occidental Petroleum Corporation proposal to drill for oil in an affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood was rejected by city voters.

The impact of California's insurance battle will take some time to sort out. Insurance companies had warned before the election that approval of the Nader-backed initiative (Proposition 103) would drive them out of business. At least one company has already said it would leave. A court challenge may also come.

Other referendum votes included:

Limiting development. Cape Cod residents voted to limit growth, and voters in two coastal cities in Orange County, Calif., approved slow-growth proposals.

Rights for farm animals. Massachusetts voters soundly rejected an initiative aimed at protecting farm animals from cruelty; farmers had opposed it as too costly. South Dakotans approved a ban on corporate hog farming by a 60-to-40 percent margin.

Ban on smoking. Oregonians rejected what would have been the nation's toughest antismoking law.

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