Whether activist, angry, or ambivalent, voters had the chance to make their voices heard and play a direct role in setting policy via state ballot measures in the 1994 elections. Over 100 initiatives were decided in 23 states; about 60 percent passed. The decisions ranged from Washington's vote on dentures to the "right-to-die" measure in Oregon. As with the general candidate elections, the big money often -- but certainly not always -- won the day. Strong public sentiment appears to override even vast amounts of cash in many cases.
With 18 initiatives, Oregon had more ballot questions than any other state. But California led the pack in terms of national controversy, and likely in spending as well. Total fund raising for the state's top three initiative campaigns surpassed $32 million by late October, according to California Common Cause.
Proposition 187, which restricts state services to illegal immigrants, won with 59% of the vote, though opponents to the measure outspent supporters by more than two to one: $1.6 million was spent against the proposal. Even last-minute donations against the proposition from such diverse groups as the California State Council of Service Employees, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, and the California Teachers Association Issues PAC failed to stop the measure.
Seventy-three percent of Californians sent a proposal for a Canadian-style single-payer health plan (Proposition 186) to the graveyard. Reports from late October showed that opponents, led by insurance companies, had far outspent those in favor of the health care initiative. Of the $9.2 million spent, $6.9 million went to kill single-payer.
In contrast, industry money didn't help a measure that would have eased smoking restrictions and received strong financial backing from tobacco companies. Proposition 188 went down in flames with 71 percent of voters against it. A record $12.5 million donation from Philip Morris made the company the largest single contributor to an initiative campaign in the state's history. Smoking initiative spending was particularly lopsided: $13,775,422 was spent to get voters to pass 188 and $390,883 to stop it.
Campaign Finance Passes the Test
Campaign finance reform was a clear favorite in four of the five states that voted on it, winning in Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon and losing only in Colorado.
Oregonians passed strict limitations on contributions by an overwhelming margin; Measure 9, which calls for a $100 cap on all legislative races, won 72 percent of the vote. The measure also allows a $50 tax credit for contributors to candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits.
Voters in Missouri and Montana also passed substantial reform, by 77 percent and 63 percent, respectively. Both states will now restrict contributions to state house candidates to $100, senate candidates to $200, and statewide candidates to $300. Both measures also provide for the creation of state campaign finance reform commissions.
Nevada's Question 10, to "establish, limit, and define campaign contributions," was approved by 73 percent of voters, but Colorado's Amendment 15, a $100 contribution limit, was shot down with the help of a one-sided corporate spending barrage. After an estimated $750,000 TV and radio ad campaign against the measure, Amendment 15 was defeated 54 to 46 percent.
Mixed Results for Dicey Gambles
More states had gambling measures on the ballot than any other type of initiative, and the gambling-related ballot questions proved to be a money magnet.
In Florida, the big money lost big -- 62 percent of voters nixed a measure that would have allowed casino-type gambling at horse and dog tracks despite the $20.7 million spent by various pro-gambling groups. The main anti-gambling group, "No Casinos, Inc.," spent a modest (by comparison) $1.6 million.
In Rhode Island there were five ballot questions on gambling in specific communities as well as a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling. All were defeated. Another gambling measure was put on the ballot by the governor that would have allowed an Indian tribe to set up a casino in a certain locale; it too failed. No financing reports were filed with the office of campaign finance, although the Indian measure was said to have been backed by some serious money.
Wyoming citizens defeated a proposal to allow slot machines, video poker, and card games into counties that approve them. Only 30 percent of voters were in favor of the measure, despite the $389,309 spent in its favor. Opponents of the initiative spent $105,108.
Missouri passed a measure which would allow slot machines on the state's riverboat casinos. $10.5 million weighed in for the machines. The anti-gambling committee spent $273,762. The final vote was 54 percent in favor of the slots.
South Dakotans voted in favor of video lottery 53 to 47 percent after pro-gambling forces anted up $670,733. The opposition mustered only a fraction of that amount: $93,068.
In Colorado, voters defeated legalizing casino gambling by a very large margin. According to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, the pro-gambling forces ("People's Research Initiative for a Desirable Economy" and the "Committee for Better Schools") reported expenditures of $157,169. The anti-gambling group spent $119,714.
A New Mexico initiative calling for a state lottery -- and specifically including video gambling -- passed by an estimated 54 percent. As in Missouri and South Dakota, the bet paid off for pro-gambling groups. Those fighting the lottery spent $11,884 and were out gunned by 20 to 1, with $235,445 to support the measure.
Arkansas originally had three gambling initiatives to be voted on, though they were stricken from the ballot by the courts. Before the court ruling, pro-gambling forces spent $4.9 million (through October 10); opponents' spending through November 1 came to $1.9 million.
Term Limits: Six More Approved
Six more states will restrict the number of terms federal office holders can serve, bringing to 22 the total number of term-limits states.
In nearly all of the eight states that put the issue on the ballot, voters showed strong support for it. Only Utah, which already has term limits, rejected a ballot measure that would have further cut the number of years House members could serve as well as require run-off elections. Colorado, on the other hand, also already had term limits, but voted to strengthen them. New limits were approved by citizens in Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Massachusetts, Alaska, Idaho, and the District of Columbia.
Funds backing the term limit initiative have stirred some controversy. The Washington, D.C.-based organization, U.S. Term Limits, supplied: $52,870 out of $73,260 received by Idahoans for Term Limits; $230,000 of the $255,100 to Nebraskans for Term Limits; all of the $40,000 used by the Alaska Committee for a Citizen Congress; $41,000 of the $153,200 given to Nevadans for Term Limits (another $50,000 came from a U.S. Term Limits board member); and $76,000 of the $104,500 contributed to Maine term limits proponents.
U.S. Terms Limits' funding is all from individuals; they accept no corporate money, says executive director Paul Jacob, although its affiliate, the U.S. Term Limits Foundation, has received grants and an occasional corporate contribution. Most of U.S. Term Limits income comes from its 70,000 dues-paying members; another sizable chunk comes from its National Finance Committee, a group of 78 individuals who gave $1,000 or more to the cause.
Even initiative spending came under voter review this year, but reform was quashed, ironically enough, after a huge corporate spending campaign. Citizens of Massachusetts answered Question 1 -- which would have banned direct corporate contributions to influence the outcome of ballot measures -- with a resounding "no."
According to MassPIRG, which sponsored the initiative, almost $2.4 million in mostly corporate money funded the Committee to Defend First Amendment Rights which opposed Question 1. The Vote Yes on Question 1 Committee spent less than one-twentieth of that amount: $100,613. The measure lost 55 to 45 percent. In all, over $10 million was spent on ballot questions in the state. Matt Wilson of MassPIRG says that "about 80 percent of that was corporate money."
Margaret Engle is editor of Capital Eye, the newsletter of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. and where this article first appeared. For information, contact the Center at: 1320 19th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.
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