Acton Institute Powerblog

Victories for liberty: 2020 state ballot initiatives

(AP Photo / David Zalubowski)

Whatever the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, liberty won numerous victories – and suffered a handful of setbacks – in state referendums nationwide. Voters in both “blue” and “red” states endorsed policies to advance individual initiative, limit government overreach, and establish equal justice under the law. However, they also voted for higher taxes on tobacco and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Here is a state-by-state look at several of the most important results.

California: The nation’s most populous state decided the greatest number of initiatives touching on legal equality, economic freedom, and the ability to make a living.

Golden State voters turned back an attempt to reimpose Affirmative Action policies in public education, employment, and contracting. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to say, “The [s]tate shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Proposition 16 would have struck the full text of the amendment from the document. The chief proponent of the 1996 amendment, Ward Connerly, said the new initiative would destroy the equality that lies at the heart of the American experiment and amounts to little more than a rush “to reshape the contours of power in America.” On Tuesday, 56% of Californians voted against repealing the amendment, which established colorblind and meritocratic evaluation of students and job applicants.

California’s Proposition 15 would amend the state’s signature tax limitation law in an effort to soak wealthy business owners. In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, which limited property taxes to 1% of a property’s cash value at the time of purchase and froze annual tax increases at the rate of either 2% or actual inflation, whichever was less. Heart-wrenching stories of senior citizens losing their homes due to the state’s ever-increasing tax rates drove the measure to victory. Proposition 15’s “split-roll” initiative would have repealed the 1978 measure’s protections for businesses worth more than $3 million, which would have seen their property reassessed and taxed at market value every year instead of only at the time of purchase. The new taxation regimen would have raised taxes by an estimated $12 billion a year. Affected businesses would then pass on their added costs either by raising the rent for tenants (where applicable) or passing on the added costs to the consumers in the form of higher prices, an outcome that hurts the poorest citizens most. “Proposition 15 would raise the cost of living in California, which already has the nation’s highest poverty rate when the cost of living is taken into account,” according to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The measure failed 52-48.

California’s Proposition 21 would have allowed local governments to expand rent control policies to homes and other rental properties that are more than 15 years old. Rent control artificially constricts housing supply by discouraging landlords from building new homes or renting existing facilities. As a result, government market interventions worsen the state’s already pandemic housing shortage. California’s voters rejected Proposition 21 by 60% to 40%.

Finally, California’s citizens worked to limit the damage caused by misguided politicians. Last year, state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 5, which waged war on freelance workers. AB 5 required companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their independent contractors as employees, eligible for unemployment, sick leave, and healthcare benefits. In the process, it capped the amount of income freelance workers can earn, limiting freelance writers to 35 articles a year per outlet. California’s Proposition 22 allows app-based transportation and delivery services to again classify many of their workers as contractors. A survey found that 72% of rideshare drivers supported Proposition 22, which passed with 58% of the vote. The measure, however, only rolls back AB5’s provisions for this industry.

ColoradoProposition 116 reduces the state’s flat income tax from 4.63% to 4.55%. The rate reduction would cut taxes by an estimated $203 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year and $154 million the following year, transferring those funds from politicians’ budget sheets to taxpayers’ pockets. “Right now, who needs money more – politicians, or everyday Coloradans?” asked Jesse Mallory of the state’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “Reducing the state income tax would help keep more money in the pockets of hard-working Coloradans to help make ends meet, support their families, and invest in their communities.” Taxpayers voted themselves a pay raise by a robust, 16-point margin.

Colorado’s Proposition 117 closes a loophole that lawmakers used to vitiate the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). TABOR requires voter approval for nearly all tax increases and limits politicians from raising most forms of government revenue beyond the growth in population plus inflation. Should state tax revenue grow beyond these limits, Colorado’s taxpayers receive a refund, as they did this spring. State lawmakers, aided by the state Supreme Court, tried to sidestep this provision by arguing that state enterprises (government-run businesses that are funded by fees rather than taxation) do not count toward this revenue limit. That gives politicians more money at taxpayers’ expense. For instance, the state’s Hospital Provider Fee collected $688.5 million from hospitals between October 2014 and September 2015 and returned no funds to taxpayers. Proposition 117 requires voter approval for any new state enterprise if it has projected revenue of $100 million in its first five years. Proposition 117 passed with 53% support.

Finally, more than two-thirds of Coloradans voted to increase taxes on cigarettes and slap an additional tax on tobacco products, including vaping. Proposition EE would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes from $0.87 to $2.64 by 2027. Cigarettes would cost $7.50 a pack by 2024. Government’s “sin taxes” are regressive, falling hardest on the meager pleasures of the poor. They raise ethical questions by allowing politicians to benefit from the proceeds of the “sin,” making the government dependent on revenues produced by the very unethical practice which the tax putatively discourages. And when politicians tax an activity as popular and widespread as smoking, they create a black market exploited by smugglers and sometimes terrorist organizations. According to the Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism in France, 15 international terrorist groups, including the IRA and FARC, benefit from illegal cigarettes; the smuggling accounts for 20% of their revenues.

Florida: Florida Amendment 2 raises the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 an hour by 2026. The national “Fight for $15” enjoys the support of labor unions, the Religious Left, and politicians like Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, who said that anyone who opposes a government-mandated minimum wage hike “taunts” the Lord God Almighty. Opponents say that raising mandatory wages necessarily reduces employment. A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that a $15 minimum wage would give the average person an extra $50 a month, while destroying the jobs of 1.3 million to 3.7 million people. Amendment 2 needed to pass with a 60% supermajority; it squeaked by with 60.8%.

Illinois: Illinois currently collects income tax at a flat rate of 4.95%. Senate Joint Resolution 1, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker dubbed the “Fair Tax,” would replace the flat tax with a graduated income tax whose six brackets range from 4.75% to 7.99%. Proponents advanced the new tax scheme by arguing everything from its purported fairness, to the need to plug the state’s gaping budget hole, to intersectionality. “Here in Illinois, racism quietly masquerades as tax fairness,” said Unitarian-Universality minister Rev. Alan Taylor as he denounced the flat tax. SJR1’s opponents said a uniform tax rate is inherently fairer than a multi-tiered system, that the state’s budget crisis stems from politicians spending too much rather than taxing their constituents too little, and that “a graduated or progressive income tax can create a very real disincentive to work as it punishes, through higher tax rates, those who choose to work more hours or longer days.” The Illinois Policy Institute estimated that the “Fair Tax” would have meant a $3.7 billion tax hike that raised the costs of an estimated 100,000 small businesses statewide. Illinois residents voted down the measure by a 10-point margin (55% to 45%).

Oregon: Measure 108 imposes a 250% tax increase on cigarettes from $1.33 to $3.33 per pack. It also doubles the maximum legal tax on cigars from 50 cents to $1.00 per cigar and charges a 65% tax on e-cigarettes and vaping. As with Colorado Proposition EE, Measure 108 passed with more than two-thirds of the vote.

Washington: Washington Advisory Vote 32 asks state legislators to repeal Senate Bill 5323, which bans stores from using single-use plastic bags beginning January 1, 2021. Stores must also charge consumers a fee of 8 cents a bag for each recyclable bag, which rises to 12 cents for recyclable plastic bags in 2026. San Francisco passed one of the first bans on single-use plastic bags in 2007; a 2011 study found bacteria – including E. coli and salmonella – “in 99% of reusable bags tested, but none in new or plastic bags.” The potential for transmission takes on added importance in the era of COVID-19. The non-binding measure passed with 61% of the votes cast.

All of these measures should be judged by the same criteria: whether they enhance or inhibit people’s ability to offer their God-given gifts in service of others. Lower taxes, more jobs, and merit-based access to employment and opportunity promote human flourishing, which sets government on a firm foundation of a strong body politic. These initiatives’ overall success rate proves that the ideas of liberty and opportunity fare better than individual candidates, who embody those ideas at best imperfectly.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.