POLITICS: Campaigns

Voters in referenda reject big-government control

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Beltway Confidential,Education,Michael Barone,Colorado,Maine,Washington,Big Government,Campaigns,Michigan,Marijuana,Gay rights

Looking over last week's referendum votes in the states, I believe I see a common thread in most -- not quite all, but most -- of the results. It's similar to what I describe in a Washington Examiner column last June, in which I saw libertarian trends on marijuana, gay rights and gun rights. True, Colorado voters, who approved marijuana legalization 55 percent to 45 percent in November 2012, this time imposed a 25-percent tax on it. But this is justifiable for the same reasons that we heavily tax alcohol and tobacco -- the substance is harmful to some folks, and we want to discourage overuse. It's an attempt to encourage restraint in the exercise of liberty -- and to fatten the public coffers at the same time.

Meanwhile, voters in Portland, Maine, voted to legalize possession of recreational amounts of marijunana, while voters in three Michigan cities — Ferndale, Jackson and Lansing — passed similar measures. Portland is the trendy largest city in culturally liberal Maine, and Lansing is a state capital with a spillover university community in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. Ferndale is a suburb just north of Detroit that in my time in Michigan was dowdy and middle-class, with 1920s housing; now it is home to many gays (you can do great things upgrading those old houses) and has an openly gay mayor. Jackson, a manufacturing town and site of the state’s largest prison, is more of a puzzle: an indication that pot is widely accepted in Middle America these days.

On gay rights, voters in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb just north of Ferndale, passed an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In my day, Royal Oak was solidly middle-class and leaned Republican; it was the home of the Shrine of the Little Flower, the Catholic Church whose priest, Father Charles Coughlin, was a major national figure in the 1930s as a radio commentator urging various crank economic reforms and verging on (or advocating) anti-Semitism. In 1942, Archbishop Edward Mooney ordered him off the air, but he continued as parish priest at the Shrine until 1966; I wish I had gone over one Sunday to hear him speak. It would also be amusing to know what he would have thought of a gay-rights ordinance in his hometown.

Environmental restrictionists met with defeats by voters South Portland, Maine, where voters rejected a ban on tar sands oil from western Canada (though how it would get there, even if and when the Keystone XL pipeline is built, is not clear), and voters in Washington state, who rejected mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods by a 53 percent to 47 percent. I wonder whether both measures would have been vulnerable as restrictions on interstate commerce.

The biggest news on the referendum front was the 65-35 defeat of Amendment 66 in Colorado. This would have raised the state income tax to 5 percent on income up to $75,000 and 5.9 percent on income above that amount, to replace Colorado's current 4.63-percent flat-rate income tax. The proceeds would be devoted to K-12 legislation. This was supported by Democratic Gov. John Hicklenlooper and Democratic legislations, and by Bill and Melinda Gates and outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Proponents argued that it would support education reforms, and it is true that Colorado Democrats (including Sen. Michael Bennet, when he was school superintendent in Denver) have supported some such measures. But the fact that it was strongly supported by teacher unions suggests it would have mostly pumped money to reform-resisting teacher unions which in turn would have pumped money to the Democratic party.

Amendment 66 carried only two counties, Boulder (54-46) and Denver (53-47), and lost in the other 62 counties. It was rejected in blue-collar Pueblo County, in Hispanic-majority Conejos and Costilla counties, in gentry liberal ski resorts Aspen (Pitkin County) and Telluride (San Miguel County). The rejection of this measure by such a large margin in one of the nation's premier target states -- one which National Journal's Ronald Brownstein calls “America, writ small” -- is of major significance. Voters evidently see behind the "more money for the kids" appeal to the "more money for the teacher unions and the Democratic Party" reality. It's something to keep in mind as we watch Obamacare implode. Voters in Colorado and other Obama states (Michigan, Maine, Washington) seem to be rejecting big government and to be endorsing individual freedom, with appropriate restraints.

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