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2010 Preview | Ballot initiatives are a way for citizens to settle an issue directly without state legislatures

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

Ballot initiatives are a way for citizens to settle an issue directly without state legislatures, and each state does ballot initiatives differently or not at all. Twenty-four states permit them, while 18 allow voters to make amendments to the state constitution. States have different deadlines and petition requirements for such votes. So with dozens of different deadlines, the list of initiatives for 2010 is very fluid. Here are important measures that may appear on ballots Nov. 2.

Marijuana

Several states may consider whether they will legalize medical marijuana. Petitions seeking a vote to legalize medical marijuana have been filed in Arizona, California, Florida, and Minnesota. Gov. Tim Pawlenty already vetoed the Minnesota legislature's attempt in 2009 to legalize medical marijuana for the terminally ill, but a statewide vote could amend the state constitution to make it allowable. Elsewhere groups are still working on getting signatures for such an initiative. The District of Columbia will likely consider the issue too, the first time Congress has allowed a ballot vote on it since 1998, when voters approved medical marijuana but Congress blocked the District Council from turning the vote into law. Thirteen states have legalized medical marijuana to one degree or another.

Healthcare

After a proposed federal healthcare overhaul dominated 2009, several states in 2010 will try to remind the federal government that healthcare does not exclusively belong to Congress. There is a strong geographic tone to the potential healthcare ballot initiatives: The Northeastern states of Maine and Massachusetts are asking voters to embrace government-run healthcare. In Maine voters could pass a ballot measure asking Congress and the president to enact the U.S. National Health Insurance Act, while Massachusetts voters are facing an amendment declaring that the state government must pay for health insurance for all its residents. But in the Midwest the message seems to be: Keep your hands off my healthcare. Both Minnesota and Missouri have proposed the Healthcare Freedom Act, which would protect the individual's right to make healthcare decisions. In Arizona, a ballot measure would prohibit rules against participation in specific healthcare plans.

Education

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In Idaho, retired teacher Chuck Seldon filed a petition to allow students in public schools to choose to take a class on the Bible to study its "literary and historical qualities." The class, the proposal reads, would not be used to "promote sectarian or denominational doctrine." Critics have said that religion is difficult to separate from the study of the Bible and the class would amount to promoting Christianity. Seldon has to get about 51,000 signatures for the measure to make it to voters' ballots. Meanwhile, Massachusetts will consider whether to remove limits on the funding, enrollment, and number of charter schools. And a constitutional amendment initiative in Oklahoma would require the state to increase funding to public schools at the per-pupil rate of neighboring states, a move pushed by the state's teachers union.

Property rights

Eminent domain laws, allowing government to buy and seize private property, fan flames of debate year after year, in state after state. Since the unpopular Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court case in 2005, which upheld the city's decision to seize several homes for private developers, few states allow governments to purchase private property through eminent domain simply for economic development. Missouri is one that still allows it in certain cases. Citizens there may vote on that issue this year in a ballot measure that would prohibit the government from condemning properties that would be used for something like a shopping center. The measure is mired in controversy right now, however, because the initiative's backers, Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, allege that the law firm working for the state on this issue is hampering the signature collection process.

Gambling

Some conservative and Christian groups have locked arms to oppose Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's plan to fill an $850 million budget hole by opening slot machines at the state's horse racetracks. The coalition, LetOhioVote.org, filed a lawsuit against the state and won a delay of the opening of 17,500 slots. Backers included conservative Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the National Christian Schools Association. The group has sought enough signatures to put the issue to a vote on ballots in November. Without the slots revenue, the governor is planning to delay an upcoming income tax cut.

Taxing and spending

Several states in 2010 are going after the ever-expanding role of government. Alaskans will vote on whether to prohibit publicly funded lobbying. Illinois, still recovering from the exploits of the last two governors, will decide on an amendment to allow voters-not the legislature-to recall the governor. Seeking relief, Massachusetts voters will weigh in on rolling back their 6.25 percent sales tax to as low as 2.5 percent. Both Missouri and Oklahoma are considering initiatives imposing term limits on elected officials. And taking the opposite approach to limiting governmental power, Nebraskans will vote on a ballot measure authorizing the state to increase the salaries of state senators.

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