ballot-initiatives-inequality

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The electoral college has spoken, and the White House as well as Congress are firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, with Donald Trump at their helm.

Not all election news was terrifying, however. Voters in several states, including some red ones, cast votes for ballot initiatives that will fight inequality. While not all were successful, the ballot initiative fights offer some important lessons that should be carefully analyzed as we dust ourselves off and prepare for the fights to come.

The most encouraging news is that minimum wage increases won big time, including in deep-red Arizona, and efforts to increase tax fairness in California won handily. Here’s how the key inequality-related ballot initiatives we were tracking turned out.

1. Minimum wage increases (Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Washington).

Just as in 2014, minimum wage increases won everywhere they were on the ballot. Colorado, Maine, and Arizona will increase the state minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. In Washington, it will rise to $13.50. In Maine and also in the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, wage hikes will include a phasing out of the subminimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped workers. The Arizona and Washington initiatives also included earned sick leave protections. In South Dakota, living wage advocates won a defensive battle against an initiative that would’ve lowered the state minimum wage for workers under 18 years old.

2. Protection against predatory lending (South Dakota).

South Dakota also offers a very encouraging story on the issue of payday loan sharks. While Donald Trump took 62 percent of the vote in that state, a bipartisan coalition with strong support from the faith community managed to crush industry opposition to an initiative aimed at reining in predatory lending. A measure to set a 36 percent cap on short-term payday loan interest rates, which currently average around 600 percent in the state, garnered an astounding 76 percent support, despite being outspent by industry groups by 16 to 1.

3. Tax increases on the wealthy and corporations (California, Oregon, Maine).

Californians scored a big win against inequality by voting to extend the highest tax rate in the country on the wealthy. By extending their 13.3 percent rate on those making more than $1 million per year, the state will reap $4 billion to $9 billion in annual revenue for human needs. The measure previously passed in 2012, but was set to sunset. Conservative claims that such a high tax on the wealthiest residents would tank the economy were disproved by the past four years of steady growth in the state. The new initiative will remain in place for 12 years, ensuring that California will continue to be a leader in tax fairness.

In Maine, an initiative to add a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 was still too close to call during this writing. If adopted, revenue would fund education in the state, closing the gap between rich and poor school districts as well as the gap between rich and poor families.

Oregon suffered a loss on Measure 97, an initiative to raise corporate tax rates on large and profitable corporations in the state. The Beaver state will maintain the lowest corporate tax rates in the country, and the education, health care, and senior services that would have been funded by the measure will remain under-resourced.

4. Limits on corporate rights and money in politics (California, Missouri, South Dakota, Washington).

Voters in California and Washington both passed initiatives formally encouraging their states’ congressional delegations to work to overturn Citizens United. These efforts won’t make much of a difference with Republicans in control of the White House, Senate, and House, but it’s a strong endorsement for the cause.

In the red states of Missouri and South Dakota, voters passed campaign finance initiatives with a bit more bite. Missouri’s Amendment 2 will place a hard limit on contributions for state and judicial candidates. The initiative is a re-do of similar legislation agree to by voters in 1994, but repealed by Republicans in 2008.

In South Dakota, initiated Measure 22 also passed, establishing a publicly funded campaign finance program and an ethics commission for the first time in that state. This bold initiative was backed by Represent.Us, a national anti-corruption group spawned in the wake of Citizens United.

On the other hand, a second initiative in Washington, one with more teeth than the Citizens United measure, did not pass. Initiative 1464 would have enabled sales tax revenue to be allocated for “democracy credits” that residents could direct to candidates, an idea rooted in democratizing campaign contributions.

5. Right to work for less (Alabama, Virginia).

Results on “right to work” initiatives were split. The 26 mostly southern states with so-called “right to work” laws that undercut labor unions tend to have lower wages, less health care coverage and an overall lower quality of life. Nevertheless, anti-union ideologues organized two initiatives to cement these laws in their state’s constitutions. Virginia voters rejected this proposal but Alabamans supported it.

6. Charter schools (Massachusetts, Georgia).

Question 2 in Massachusetts was handed a major defeat despite breaking the state’s record for ballot initiative campaign spending. The initiative would have lifted the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state and would take an estimated $100 million from public schools. In Georgia, an initiative to hand over power over the public education system to for-profit corporations was soundly defeated. Republican Georgia Governor Nathan Deal supported the measure.

7. Protection against drug price-gouging (California).

Lastly, and perhaps most disappointing, Big Pharma spent more than $100 million to defeat a proposal to prohibit the state of California from paying more than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does for the same pharmaceuticals. This was the biggest outlay in any ballot initiative fight in the country — and a chilling reminder of how big money can undercut this hard-fought tool for direct democracy.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies.