State Initiatives: Mostly Saying No to Change

A tight-fisted mood yielded only to votes for smaller classes and more school programs

This year's state ballot initiatives proved that voters were unwilling to spend tax dollars on anything but essentials. From universal health insurance in Oregon to improved transportation in Virginia, voters gave a resounding thumbs-down. "When there's a lot of uncertainty about the economy," says M. Dane Walters, president of the nonpartisan Initiative & Referendum Institute, "people lean toward maintaining the status quo."

There's one exception to that rule: education. Californians approved a measure that will allocate more than $500 million for before- and after-school programs. Arnold Schwarzenegger sponsored the initiative in what many observers saw as a precursor to a possible 2006 gubernatorial bid. Floridians, meanwhile, voted to reduce class sizes and offer prekindergarten programs for four-year-olds. Parents, says Amy Wilkins of the advocacy group Education Trust, "will ask for better services even when resources are tight."

Voters were less inclined to tinker with drug and health policies. In addition to rejecting universal health insurance, Oregon voters killed an initiative that would have required labeling products sold or produced in the state that contained genetically modified ingredients. In both instances, industry spent lavishly to defeat the measures.

Medical marijuana also went up in smoke. Voters in four states turned down ballot measures that would have relaxed drug laws, including one in Nevada that would have decriminalized possession of up to three ounces of marijuana. Cigarette smokers got scant consolation on election night. Floridians voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in most indoor spaces. And Arizonans imposed a big tax hike on tobacco, although a similar measure lost in Missouri.

In years past, populist organizers, politicians, and lobbyists have used ballot measures to push for changes in social policies. This year, voters were in no mood to rock the boat.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.