Transit, Police Reform and Drug Policy See Some Big Ballot Wins
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As the U.S. waits to find out the results of a close presidential race, states already know the outcomes of many policy and spending decisions that were posed directly to voters on Tuesday. Local referenda reflected both efforts that far preceded the coronavirus pandemic, and those that were energized by recent events, from the economic downturn to racial justice protests.
But not all of the proposals made it to the ballot. Covid-19 lockdowns dealt an early blow to the ballot initiative campaign season, hindering door-to-door signature-collecting efforts anddelaying outreach on some initiatives. Case in point: As the Trace reported, 2020 marks thefirst time in six years that there wasn’t a single gun reform initiative.
The following are some of the most noteworthy measures affecting cities. This article will be updated with additional ones as results come in.
Big wins, big losses for funding transit
Two metro areas saw major boosts to their transportation funding Tuesday. Austin, Texas, voters approved two transit-related measures: One to raise taxes to fund several new light rail lines and other transportation infrastructure, and another to improve pedestrian and biking infrastructure with a city loan of $460 million. The votes were considered a particular win given the city’s past appetite for such plans: Similar measures failed in 2000 and 2014. And with the pandemic driving ridership down across the nation, transit advocates worried that voters would lack enthusiasm for spending on public transportation projects.
The California Bay Area’s Caltrain, too, got a needed infusion with the approval of a new tax to allow a dedicated funding source for the commuter service, after the system faced the possibility of a shutdown this spring with the evaporation of its regular ridership of tech workers.
But headed for defeat is a Portland measure to fund a range of transit improvements that had become a referendum on racial equity. Some racial justice advocates said the measure was tailored to help communities of color and represented a needed expansion of resources, particularly during a pandemic. But opposition was also widespread: The funding would have taken the form of a payroll tax on large employers, and some of the region’s largest companies funded an opposition campaign, most notably Nike Inc. They considered the per-employee cost to be too high during an economic downturn. Otheropponents said much of the funding would actually have conferred disproportionate benefits to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, at a cost.
The Portland area’s Measure 26-218 would have added transit improvements like a new rail line, a rapid bus network and bus electrification, as well as programs benefiting students and lower income communities, like free bus passes for youth and investment in affordable housing.
“Though disappointed, we are still committed to the vision and to the community who helped identify and build the vision,” Metro Council President Lynn Petersonsaid in a statement. “The fact is, our communities — particularly communities of color and low-income families struggling the most right now — still need safer streets, better transit and improved access to opportunity.”
A novel precedent on gig workers
California’s Proposition 22 tested a key question on gig worker protections that is the first of its kind: Should ride-hailing and delivery companies like Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and Doordash continue to classify drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, eligible for particular benefits and protections? Voters said yes to independent contractors, setting up a precedent that is likely to affect the rights of workers in many other places considering how to regulate the gig economy.
Known as the “Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act,” the initiative became one of the state’s most expensive, and closely watched, ballot races after those very companies poured $200 million into a campaign to persuade voters to help preserve the model that’s been at the root of their success. The companies argued that Prop 22 would not only protect their workers’ flexibility and independence, but also prevent mass layoffs and keep consumer prices low. Labor groups aren’t buying it.They told Bloomberg CityLab earlier this year that as the gig economy grows, such initiatives strip workers of rights that should be guaranteed to full-time workers — things like minimum wage, paid leave and unemployment benefits, as well as protection from hiring discrimination. Had Uber and Lyft drivers been considered employees, unemployment insurance alone could have cost the companies an estimated $400 million between 2014 and 2019.
The measure came in response to earlier state legislation that classified these workers as employees. But one provision in Prop 22 will make it harder to reverse the initiative again: It requires a 7/8 supermajority of legislators to amend it.
Post-George Floyd police reform
By the estimate of Ballotpedia,there were at least 20 local police-related measures that qualified for the ballot after the killing of George Floyd. Not all of them have results yet, but several of the most novel measures appear poised to pass.
In Los Angeles, the measure that comes the closest to following the ideals of the defund-the-police movement isleading by a large margin. Measure J would allocate funding for social service alternatives to the criminal justice system. While the measure doesn’t dictate where those funds should come from, it’s not unlikely that at least some of the funds for the program will come from law enforcement budgets. The initiative requires that 10% of general local revenue go toward the initiative, and backers hope it will be a national model for reform.
“The passage of Measure J is a true step in changing structures that have denied our communities of color from the being the priorities they deserve, and need, to be,” said Eunisses Hernandez, co-chair of Yes on Measure J, in a statement. “For far too long the needs of our Black and Brown communities fell on the budget chopping block and as a result these communities have paid the price. Measure J will now change that by making direct community investments and implementing alternatives to incarceration.”
A San Francisco measure to remove a minimum required number of police officers in the city is alsopoised to pass. The measure is in some ways symbolic: The city hasn’t been following the minimum in recent years. But the provision comes with other requirements to reassess resources, which have remarkably widespread support: Both proponents of reform and the city’s police chief hope the process will spur new scrutiny of law enforcement needs.
Several other measures to improve police oversight boards passed handily, including one in Portland. And a Columbus, Ohio, initiative looks favored to pass.
Drug policy efforts expand beyond marijuana
Marijuana wasn’t the only drug policy issue on local ballots this year. Oregon blazed several new trails on drug reform Tuesday, becoming the first state to decriminalize all drugs and the first state to legalize some therapeutic use of psychedelics. The state’s Measure 110 eliminates criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of all drugs, from cocaine to methamphetamine.
The measure uses revenue from the state’s medical marijuana program — as well as cost savings from imprisoning fewer people on drug crimes — to fund an addiction treatment program. Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Kassandra Frederique hailed the measure as “arguably the biggest blow to the drug war to date” in a blog post, citing continued dramatic racial disparities in drug prosecutions. But some mental health and addiction specialists who opposed the measure said it siphons resources away from addiction treatment and drug courts.
Oregon’s other drug ballot initiative allows the use of psychedelic mushrooms under therapeutic supervision, and establishes a two-year period to set up the regulation of the measure before it goes into effect. Measure 109, too, is the first of its kind, but it wasn’t the only measure on psychedelics Tuesday. Washington, D.C., also passed a measure to effectively decriminalize several psychedelic drugs by making the prosecution of people who possess those drugs the “lowest law enforcement priority.” Several other cities including Denver recently passed similar measures. Proponents of these measures cite growing research that supervised use of psychedelic drugs can be effective in treating several mental health issues, including trauma and depression.
Several states did also pass measures to reform marijuana laws, including legalized recreational marijuana in New Jersey and Arizona.
Read more: Marijuana Ballot Measures Pass in Five States
— With assistance by Sarah Holder, and Laura Bliss
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