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State tax initiatives: on, off and maybe

Ballot initiatives are a popular way to let state politicians off the hook get the public involved in the legislative process.

Voting Yes, I know that proponents of the process argue that the direct-to-voters approach keeps state governments in check.

But in many cases, it's also an easy way out for lawmakers, who then can point fingers at the voting public when bad ideas become law.

And sometimes initiatives win based on how well the group pushing the measure is run. OK, so that's no different than any other U.S. election, but if the folks in our statehouses aren't taking responsibility for making our laws, why are they there?

Yeah, I know. A topic for another long blog post.

This year, voters in 30 states are set to decide 112 ballot propositions in November, according the Initiative and Referendum Institute. The tax and spending issues that normally dominate are taking a back seat in 2008 to social issue questions. 

A few tax items, however, are in the voting mix, or trying to be.

Florida property/sales tax swap: A proposed ballot initiative that would let Florida voters decide if they want to pay higher sales taxes in exchange for lower property taxes is if off the state ballot, at least for now.

A circuit court judge ruled the measure can't go on the Nov. 4 ballot as worded. The problem, according to Judge John C. Cooper of Leon County Circuit Court, is that the initiative's wording is misleading because it incorrectly suggested that money for education would be permanently secured from other sources.

The tax swap proposal, if it makes to the voters and passes, would cut property taxes by about 25 percent in exchange for a 1 cent increase in Florida's sales tax. The Tax and Budget Commission, which put the proposal on the ballot, plans to appeal.

Read more about the ruling in the New York Times and Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press. You also can read why the Tax Policy Blog thinks tax swaps are not a good idea.

Nevada property tax limit closer to vote: Things are looking up for Nevadans who support a proposed constitutional amendment to limit property taxes in that state. The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that signatures calling for the initiative could be accepted as part of the effort to put the measure before the voters.

The initiative would limit property taxes to 1 percent of the base value of the property. The base property tax value would be tied to fiscal 2003-2004 and would increase when the property is sold.

More on the measure and the court ruling in Legal Newsline.

Colorado sales and use tax measure: On Nov. 4, Coloradans will vote on whether the state sales and use tax rate should be raised by 2 cents over a two-year period starting next July 1. Once it is completely phased in by 2010, the sales tax rate would be 3.1 percent.

Massachusetts vote on repeal of income tax: Voters in Massachusetts will decide this Election Day whether to reduce the state's personal income tax rate in 2009 to 2.65 percent for all categories. The tax would be eliminated for tax years after 2009.

More ballot news: Check out the list that start on page 5 of the August 2008 issue of Ballotwatch to see what tax or other issues you'll see on your state ballot on Nov. 4. Note that this collection was put together before some of the recent initiative changes.

Ballotpedia, the self-proclaimed encyclopedia of citizen-powered democracy, also keeps track of ballot proposals. You can search the site for your state's activities.

And the New York Times takes a look at some of the proposals and what they could mean to the presidential race.


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Evan Ravitz

Ballot initiatives are the origin of most reforms, such as women's suffrage (passed in 13 states before Congress went along), direct election of Senators (4 states), publicly financed elections (passed by initiative in 6 of 7 states with them), medical marijuana ( in 8 of 13 states) and increasing minimum wages (in all 6 states that tried in 2006). See http://Vote.org/initiatives for more examples and references.The media have seized on the problem initiatives. They generally kiss up to politicians citizens.

Voters on initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: http://Vote.org. Also http://healthydemocracyoregon.org/ and http://cirwa.org

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