Politics & Government

Pot, casinos, bears and other ballot issues

The states, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, are democracy’s laboratories. They’ve given us same-sex marriage and no-fault divorce, smoke-free bars and marijuana cafes, laws targeting undocumented immigrants and others giving in-state college tuition to their kids.

Florida banned the Australian barroom pastime of dwarf tossing, even though one lawmaker later deemed the move a job killer.

While a divided Congress is on track to be among the least productive in history, there have been fewer roadblocks in the states, where one-party rule is the norm and voters can turn to the ballot box to pass laws.

So, on Election Day, here’s a guide to the latest experiments voters will decide, from big-money fights over genetically modified foods and oil-drilling to a fracas over bear-baiting in Maine:


With Atlantic City, New Jersey, struggling as casinos proliferate along the East Coast, Massachusetts may put an end to its gambling industry before it begins.

Massachusetts gOV. Deval Patrick in 2011 signed legislation to allow casino gambling to bring tax money and jobs to a state still sputtering from the recession. Since then, Penn National Gaming Inc., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Resorts International have been awarded licenses to set up shop.

A citizen-backed initiative is now asking residents to reject the law, saying betting parlors will bring crime and little economic gain. Massachusetts would be the first state to rescind casino gaming, according to Chris Moyer, spokesman for the American Gaming Association, a Washington-based trade group.

MGM, Penn and Wynn have given more than $7 million to keep that from happening, blanketing the state with ads trumpeting the jobs to be had. Polls have found lagging support for repeal.

Separately, other measures would expand gambling at venues in South Dakota, Colorado and Rhode Island.

Minimum Wage:

President Barack Obama’s push to increase the $7.25 federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009 predictably ran aground on Capitol Hill.

Fast-food workers, unions and others pushing for increases have had more luck locally. Maryland, Massachusetts and eight other states – all but Michigan run by Democrats – approved increases this year.

More may be coming. State ballots have the most minimum wage proposals since 2006. Arkansas, Alaska, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota voters will decide whether to raise the wages, with about 187,000 workers standing to benefit, according to U.S. Labor Department figures.

Businesses say raising the level causes employers to hire less or cut back on hours; supporters contend that it provides a lift to the working poor. Voters tend to side with the latter: Since 1998, every statewide ballot measure to raise the minimum wage has passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Country-singer Willie Nelson famously claimed to have smoked a joint on the White House roof during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. When asked during a CNN interview whether he was afraid of getting caught, he replied: “I should have been.”

Getting stoned in the capital may soon bring less paranoia. The District of Columbia, along with Oregon and Alaska, will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, following the lead of Colorado and Washington.

Oregon and Alaska would tax and regulate its sale. In D.C., residents would be free to grow it and give it away. The vote will mark a test for advocates planning similar campaigns to roll back prohibition in at least five other states, including California, in 2016, when the presidential race promises to bring more young voters to the polls.

A poll published by the Washington Post last month found D.C. voters in favor of legalization by almost 2-to-1. The celebrations may have to wait: Congress has the power to block the city’s laws, so it could still have the final say.


Less than two weeks after a student opened fire in a high school outside Seattle, killing a classmate and injuring four others before taking his own life, Washington voters take up gun control. A measure backed by advocates of stricter firearm laws, including Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, would require background checks for purchases at gun shows or online.

Efforts to do that at the federal level after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings went nowhere. Washington’s prospects look better. A poll has the measure leading 2-to-1.

Genetically modified organisms:

Companies including Monsanto Co., DuPont Co. and Coca-Cola Co. are among those funding an effort to persuade voters in Colorado and Oregon to reject measures requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such.

Vermont this year became the first state to enact such a law, following failed attempts in California and Washington. The law has since been tied up in court.


Forty-five years after the blowout of an oil rig off of Santa Barbara, California, helped galvanize environmentalists, the bucolic bit of Pacific Coast is again at the center of a battle with the oil industry.

A measure before Santa Barbara County voters would bar oil companies from using hydraulic fracturing – a technique that uses high-pressure water to force oil out of rock – and other high-intensity methods to tap hard-to-get reserves. Similar measures, backed by groups worried about the environmental toll, are on ballots in California’s Mendocino and San Benito counties, as well as in Denton, Texas, outside Dallas.

Oil companies including Chevron Corp. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. have financed a California group that’s raised $7 million to fight the proposals in the most-populous state, according to campaign finance records.

Going on a Bear Hunt:

One beast took down a bird feeder in Kennebunk, Maine. Another raided a chicken coop in Lebanon. A honey-maker told a newspaper his beehives don’t stand a chance.

Black bears have stumbled into election season in Maine. Voters will decide whether to ban the use of baits, dogs and traps for hunting them – a practice advocates of the proposal say is cruel and hasn’t kept the bear population in check.

Hunters in favor of the status quo have played a furry fear card: Passing it, they say, will unleash the hibernating menace.

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