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On the Ballot: Taxes, Health Care, Hunting and More

The voters weigh in on marijuana and other key issues.

Wary of government initiatives and weary from the recession, voters rejected the sweeping health care law in two states and limited or repealed changes in taxes in other states.

They turned down the legalization of recreational marijuana use in California and sent medical marijuana measures up in smoke in two other states.

Voters upheld the nation’s first statewide climate change law in California, capped payday loan interest in Montana, and limited or eliminated politicians’ redistricting powers in Florida and California. Three additional states made hunting and fishing a constitutionally protected right.

“I would interpret this year's ballot measure results as being part and parcel of the same thing we see on the national level,” says Leslie Graves, Ballotpedia editor. “There, you could say one predominant theme was: ‘hey, not so fast!’ Voters were not comfortable with the big changes they saw.”

The discontent that helped propel the Republican Party into a majority in the U.S. House was apparent in many of the 160 ballot measures in 37 states. Exit polls showed about three in four voters held negative views about how the federal government is working, and about one in four voters reported being very angry about it.

Against that backdrop, initiatives seeking to derail the landmark health care law President Obama signed on March 22 were resoundingly approved in Arizona and Oklahoma. The constitutional amendments seek to eliminate the requirement in the law that nearly everyone buy medical insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty.

At the same time, though, Colorado voters narrowly rejected a similar measure.

Supporters had urged enactment of the constitutional amendments to send a clear message to Washington to repeal the federal health care law they often call “Obamacare.”

Legal experts say the three constitutional amendments were political gamesmanship because the federal government has the constitutional power to impose the insurance requirement and the states don’t have the power to overturn it.

“It’s just pure politics,” Timothy S. Jost, Washington and Lee University School of Law professor of law, said. “It’s just a way of whipping up the electorate and making sure people show up to vote for your party.”

Jost said it would be “almost impossible” to repeal the insurance requirement — even with Republican control of the House — because the GOP doesn’t have the votes to override an all-but-certain presidential veto. But he said the Republicans can refuse to fund implementation and can erect other blockades to stymie health care reform.

Tuesday’s votes are but the latest attempts to overturn the law before it is fully implemented. Twenty states have filed legal challenges, and Missouri voters handily approved a similar initiative in August.

While Tuesday’s vote may not overturn the health care law, Richard Cauchi, National Conference of State Legislatures' health program director, said the results could have a long-lasting impact in Oklahoma and Arizona. As the first states to enact constitutional amendments on the subject, he said Oklahoma and Arizona will limit their ability to enact insurance reforms, such as a single-payer system.

Voters in exit polls ranked the economy as their No. 1 concern, and they voted their pocketbooks on several of the more than 30 tax measures on state ballots.

In Washington state, voters easily repealed a new sales tax on candy, soda, gum and certain types of bottled water. The sales tax would have produced an estimated $300 million in revenues for the state over five years.

Washington voters also strongly supported an initiative to make tax increases harder to enact. The measure requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority or a statewide vote to raise taxes.

California already requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority for a tax increase. So its voters went one step further on Tuesday and adopted a proposition that requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority for raising fees and other so-called hidden taxes.

A noteworthy exception to the anti-tax mood among voters was Massachusetts. There, voters soundly defeated a measure that would have cut the state sales tax rate by more than half — from 6.25 percent to 3 percent.

Opponents mounted a well-financed campaign against the measure, saying it would require a 30 percent cut in state programs and cause thousands of teachers, police and firefighters to lose their jobs.

On another pocketbook issue, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent. The state previously had no limit, and the annual percentage rate on those loans is around 400 percent.

In an issue of interest to many retirees, measures making hunting and fishing a constitutionally protected right won by wide margins in Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee. But voters rejected a similar measure in Arizona.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia already allow the use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions. On Tuesday, though, voters rejected a measure to legalize medical marijuana in South Dakota, and a similar initiative was losing by a few thousand votes in Arizona. They also rejected expansions of current pot laws in California and Oregon, where medical marijuana is already legal.

An Oregon initiative to license farmers to grow pot for marijuana dispensaries failed by a large margin, and Californians decisively defeated an initiative to legalize the growing and selling of pot for recreational use.

California was the first state in the nation to approve medical marijuana, and the initiative on Tuesday’s ballot would have made it the first state to legalize pot for recreational use.

California voters upheld the state's landmark climate change law, sending a strong pro-environment message amid claims that the law would cause further job losses in a state where the unemployment rate is above 12 percent. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his final year in office, joined environmentalists in defending the climate change law that he championed and that he ranks as vital to what he considers to be his pro-environment legacy.

Californians also upheld a nonpartisan citizens redistricting commission created in 2008 to make legislative races more competitive. The commission will replace politicians in the once-a-decade process of drawing new legislative boundaries based on new census figures. The politicians had created districts that were solidly aligned with either the Democratic or Republican Party.

The state’s voters also adopted another measure on Tuesday that will expand the redistricting commission’s power to include drawing the boundaries for California's U.S. House districts.

In Florida, the voters strongly supported two measures aimed at ensuring more competitive legislative and U.S. House districts there. The two initiatives require the districts be compact and equal in population, and to make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries. The amendments also prohibit drawing districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or a political party.

“These victories resonate with a big theme of American politics in 2010, which is that voters want more say and don't want to leave such big decisions in the hands of possibly self-interested lawmakers,” says Graves, Ballotpedia editor.

Laura Mecoy is a freelance writer based in California.

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