Despite a record economy and greater satisfaction with government, citizens across the country will take a number of key legislative issues into their own hands this fall through ballot initiatives, a tool that exploded in use in the 1970s and continues to thrive.
Voters will weigh in on matters with clear national resonance, like cigarette taxes, affirmative action, campaign finance, and term limits. They'll also decide on intensely local questions such as timber practices in Oregon, the sale of horse meat in California, and possibly, cock fighting in Missouri.
At this early stage, there is no single, high-profile topic that looks likely to ignite a national movement the way California's antitax revolt did 20 years ago. But as a reflection of the emerging political debate for November 1998, the initiative lineup reveals the staying power of some perennial issues and identifies some newer ones that could wither or spread based on voters' verdicts.
Initiatives, allowed in 24 states, are used to "test market ideas and set political agendas," says David Magleby, author of a book on the initiative process and a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Even when defeated, ballot measures can inject an issue into public debate and candidate races, he says.
Ballot measures sometimes become highly divisive wedge issues that can define an election, as did California's anti-illegal immigrant proposition that helped Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection four years ago. Though no issue with that power is apparent right now, emotional topics such as abortion are being proposed for the ballots in Washington and Colorado.
Issues that could revive this November include affirmative action and so-called paycheck protection. An anti-affirmative action initiative on Washington State's ballot could breathe new life into a movement stalled since passage in 1996 of a ban on state employment and education preferences in California. And Oregonians will consider prohibiting public employee unions from using members' dues for political purposes, similar to an initiative defeated in California last month.
The most prevalent theme in this year's line up is governance, and how to change it, according to data gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Measures have qualified for the ballot or are gathering signatures in Alaska, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana that ask voter approval of a voluntary pledge that would be requested of state legislators and members of Congress to limit their terms in office.
Term limits have the backing of two national organizations, US Term Limits and Americans for Limited Terms. Each is using state initiatives to augment its prime mission of influencing individual races by asking candidates to take the pledge and backing those that do.
So far this year, they've had mixed success. And though some analysts consider term limits a fading concern amid a feel-good economy that bolsters the status quo, it looks likely to remain an active ingredient in this year's politics.
Also on the theme of governance are attempts in Massachusetts and Arizona to overhaul campaign-finance rules. Initiative backers want to enact public financing for candidates that voluntarily agree to certain limits on the size of private donations they accept. The approach is modeled after one adopted in Maine but not yet implemented.
Jodie Silverman of Public Campaign, a Washington advocacy group, says the states are moving out of frustration. "It's clear Congress will do nothing fundamental about [campaign] finance reform. If enough states pass this, it'll provide pressure," she says.
Other familiar issues on ballots or in the qualification process are medicinal use of marijuana and measures affecting taxes. Pot for medical use would be legalized under proposed initiatives in Washington, Alaska, Colorado, and Oregon. Tax measures include banning the property tax in Arkansas and adding a cigarette surtax in California to fund antismoking efforts.
Animal rights initiatives have been proposed for the ballot in several states. A measure banning cock fighting has been submitted for approval in Arizona and Missouri. In California, a ban on the sale of horse meat for human consumption and on the use of body-gripping traps has qualified to go to voters.
California is traditionally a leader in volume and impact of ballot initiatives and is considering a host of other measures this November. An education measure would lower class size and implement a system of teacher evaluation. Californians will also decide what types of gaming to allow on Indian lands and whether to rewrite the state's energy-deregulation law.
Robert Stern of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles estimates that the California initiatives could cost close to $100 million in pro and anti campaigns, nearing the record set in 1988.
Oregon will continue its role as something of a maverick by considering whether to implement a complete vote-by-mail system and ending clear- cutting and old-growth harvesting on forest lands.
It'll also consider ways to tighten the initiative process itself, by requiring the state to license signature-gathering firms and requiring earlier disclosure of the financial backers of ballot measures.
The initiative process has spawned an entire industry of its own that many critics feel is becoming as corrupt as the legislative process it was meant to circumvent. One common criticism is that it has moved away from being a truly grass- roots citizen effort. "It's driven more by elites and activists; it's not what voters necessarily have on their minds," says Magleby of BYU.