Voters weigh red-hot social, economic issues

— -- Voters in several states approved ballot measures Tuesday that will legalize marijuana and use gambling to fund education.

Massachusetts voters approved decriminalizing possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana. Under the new law, taking effect in 30 days, those caught must give up the marijuana and pay a $100 fine but won't face criminal penalties. Eleven other states have similar laws.

Michigan became the 13th state to allow residents — with a doctor's approval — to use marijuana to treat pain caused by cancer and other diseases.

"This is potentially a sea change," says Bruce Mirken, spokesman of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group working to legalize the drug. He says the dual victories come despite eight years of tough federal laws against marijuana. "Voters have said, loudly, 'Enough.' "

The marijuana initiatives were among 153 measures on ballots in 36 states, 59 resulting from citizen petitions covering a range of economic and social issues.

In Arkansas, voters approved a ban on unmarried couples adopting or being foster parents.

Gambling, which gives states revenue without directly increasing taxes, was on the ballot in eight states. Maryland voters approved a measure that legalizes slot machines, dedicating half the revenue from up to 15,000 machines for public schools. Ohioans approved a state lottery to fund college scholarships.

"Voters think gambling is an acceptable way to pay for education," says Jennie Drage Bowser, who has been analyzing ballot measures for more than a decade at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ohio voters, however, also rejected a measure approving a new casino. And in Massachusetts, citizens approved a ban on commercial dog racing.

Despite a weak economy, voters didn't necessarily embrace lower taxes. In Massachusetts, they rejected a measure to repeal the personal income tax, which supplies 40% of the state's budget. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick warned it would force deep cuts in services statewide.

"Voters looked beyond their checkbooks to see they benefit from state programs and services and don't want to see them cut," Bowser says.

In North Dakota, voters were leaning against a measure that would cut personal and corporate income taxes.

"This was not a good year for the anti-tax, anti-government movement," says Nicholas Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group that studies social policy. He says voters see the public sector as perhaps their last refuge.

Other issues on ballots:

Abortion/stem-cell research

In South Dakota, voters considered a ban on abortion, except in cases in which the woman was raped or her health was at risk.

California voters considered whether to require parental notification for a minor to get an abortion, and a first-of-its-kind abortion measure in Colorado would define human life as starting "from the moment of fertilization." Proponents, including the Colorado Right to Life, and opponents, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, agreed it would criminalize abortion and halt embryonic stem-cell research.

In Michigan, a ballot asked voters whether they would amend the state's constitution to repeal its existing ban on research involving embryos.

Similar ballot measures have won elsewhere, Bowser says. "I haven't seen a state reject it yet."

Affirmative action

Voters in Colorado and Nebraska considered proposals that would end many affirmative-action programs in their states.


Voters considered varying measures that affect immigrants, including one that Arizona rejected that would have revoked the business licenses of employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Missouri voted to make English the state's official language. In Oregon, it was whether to limit the teaching of bilingual education to two years or less.

Renewable energy

In Missouri, voters approved a requirement that investor-owned utilities buy or produce 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

That was not the case in Colorado, where the oil and gas industry vigorously lobbied against a tax increase, part to go toward funding college scholarships and renewable energy.

In California, two measures — one put on the ballot by Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and another by Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling — called for boosting the state's commitment to renewable energy. These measures drew broad opposition from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and both political parties, which argued they contain loopholes and other details that could slow the state's adoption of wind and solar power.