State initiatives: New Jersey rejects stem-cell research, Utah axes vouchers

Of 34 ballot measures in six states, voters on Tuesday approved 27 of them.

New Jersey voters said "no" to stem-cell research. Texans said "yes" to $3 billion in bonds to create a cancer research center. Utah voters nixed the first US voucher program open statewide to all children – not just low or middle-income families. And Oregon rejected an 84.5 cents-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes dedicating its revenue to healthcare for uninsured children.

These were among the most watched of 34 state initiatives voted on Tuesday in Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington. The number of off-year election proposals this year fell below last November's 204 propositions in 37 states. But 27 were approved this year, a 12 percent increase in approval from last year and a 28 percent increase from 2005. Only four of the measures were placed on the ballot by citizen petition, but analysts still say that interest in citizen initiatives is not diminishing.

"These votes were not particularly definitive in telling us much about the American electorate as a whole, but did give indications as to what individual states were wrestling with," says John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. Noting that tobacco companies spent about $12 million to defeat Oregon's tobacco tax, and the National Education Association spent $4.5 million to defeat the Utah voucher measure, Mr. Matsusaka says the election did spotlight a perennial trend in politics that "money talks."

New Jersey voters, for instance, voted to reject a measure that earmarked $450 million in bonds for stem cell research projects. The rejection was seen as a big defeat for Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who reportedly spent $200,000 of his own money backing it. The rather ambitious plan was to borrow $450 million over 10 years to fund stem-cell research.

"The stem-cell research initiative failed in New Jersey because the state is facing a $3 billion budget deficit," says Max Pizarro, a political analyst for "The overriding argument … is that New Jersey is simply not in a state of financial health to start branching off into stem-cell research."

Utah's vote on school vouchers was closely watched because it was the first voucher election in the US since 2000, when Michigan and California both rejected efforts to introduce them. The outcome was considered another set back in long-term national efforts by voucher proponents. Eleven state referendums on vouchers have been tried since 1972, according to the National School Boards Association. All have failed.

"What this says to me is if you can't pass a voucher measure in Utah, you are going to have a real hard time doing it anywhere," says Matsusaka. "Even in a very conservative state, voters seem to hesitate using public funds to send kids to private schools."

Drawing conclusions from the approval of a second highly watched measure in Oregon – a measure that modifies a 2004 law requiring government to compensate landowners when regulations reduce the value of their land – is less clear, say several observers. The opponents of the measure were outspent in a campaign that many think was muddied by the measure's confusing title and artful language.

"For the first time ever in this state, the ballot-title writing process was circumvented by the legislature and they used it to their advantage," says Russ Walker, who heads the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, an antitax group. He says the measure's language claims to preserve property rights, but actually diminishes them compared with the landmark law it seeks to weaken. "We think Oregonians are going to be shocked when they see what happens in the implementation of this," says Walker.

Matsusaka and others said the numbers of citizen's initiatives were slightly down because next year's presidential election will draw far more voters.

"We are going to see a return to the usual numbers of initiatives next year when bigger names on the ballot provide the bigger draw that initiative authors want," says Steven Levin, an analyst with the Center for Governmental Studies.

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