In a recent article in State Legislatures, William Pound, the Executive Director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, writes, "in recent years, most innovation in domestic policy has taken place at the state and local levels."
This year seems to be a particularly active for local innovation. Heated state ballot battles have emerged in several states including Colorado, Florida, California, Arizona and Ohio.
Colorado: Minimum Wage
In Colorado, a citizen-led campaign became a ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage, which will be decided by voters in the November election.
"It has been years since there has been a minimum wage increase in Colorado," said Jeannette Galanis, campaign manager for Coloradans for a Fair Minimum Wage.
According to Galanis, many community members and labor organizations joined together throughout the state because they believed it was time to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 an hour.
"Neither our state nor government leadership was taking the issue on, so we felt it was necessary to put it on the ballot on our own terms," said Galanis.
While the initiative received a lot of initial support from the public, business associations and the Colorado Chamber of Commerce opposed the wage increase, arguing that the initiative should not be written into the state constitution.
These opposition groups also argued against a cost of living index that was built into the wage increase legislation, which would require yearly minimum wage increases based on the cost of living.
The "Respect Colorado's Constitution" organization was formed to voice their opposition to the amendment.
"Our coalition had to get organized, as there had been no dialogue in Colorado about the wage increase," said Jan Rigg, spokesperson for Respect Colorado's Constitution organization.
Rigg argues that the amendment is poorly written and leaves no option for periods of economic downturn. She explains that the proposed wage adjustment built into the constitution may eventually work against the state economy, providing no room for a potential economic decline.
"Just about every major business entity has come out against this legislation," says Rigg. "They know what is attractive to drawing business to the state and this does not promote a stable economy."
Galanis argues that the wage increase is a moderate increase, indexed to reflect inflation and will work to bring some workers out of poverty as well as keep up with inflation.
Ohio: No Smoking, Please
In Ohio, two competing smoking initiatives will appear on the state ballot: one banning any smoking in public places, Issue 5, and the other which will allow residents to smoke in designated areas only, Issue 4.
The initiative for a complete ban on smoking in public places was drafted by a citizen group, "Smoke Free Ohio," in March of 2005. The initiative was developed after 21 individual Ohio cities passed smoking restrictions, sparking the drive to extend the ban throughout the entire state.
The bill is backed by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and several other non-profit health organizations, and aims to follow several other states that have passed statewide smoking bans.
In January of 2006, a second smoking initiative began, Issue 4. A second organization called "Smoke Less Ohio," which sought to prevent smoking in most public places, but still allow smoking in some designated places, formed to create opposing legislation.
Jacob Evans, spokesperson for Smoke Less Ohio, and his colleagues conducted a public survey to help base their legislation on the results.
"We reached out to Ohioans. Overwhelmingly people said that the status quo would be better than a total ban on smoking, but that something should be put into place," said Evans. "The public said smoking should be banned from 90 percent of all places, but not in bars, some places in restaurants, bowling alleys, veteran and fraternal halls and bingo halls."
According to the group Web site, Smoke Less Ohio is a coalition of Ohio businesses and trade organizations and is financially supported by the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and other tobacco companies.
Wendy Simpkins, the director for media relations for the Ohio American Cancer Society, argues that the opposition group is trying to confuse voters by selecting an organization name that is very similar to their name. Simpkins also explains that the opposition drafted a constitutional amendment change, which would mean that if both bills pass, the Smoke Less Ohio bill will overturn the Smoke Free Ohio bill, because it is a constitutional amendment.
"Our opponents tried to stop us in the general assembly, then in the courts, and now the last ditch effort is to put pro-smoking on the ballot, which would expose a half million Ohio hospitality workers to secondhand smoke," says Simpkins.
Evans argues that a total ban will hurt small businesses that rely on a smoking clientele and believes that Issue 4 is a smart compromise, which will move towards banning most public smoking, but will make exclusions for those businesses that rely on a smoking clientele.
Voters in Arizona will vote this election on ballot item, Prop. 205, Your Right to Vote by Mail Act, which would result in every registered voter automatically receiving a ballot in the mail, and then having the option to vote at the polls, or mailing in their ballot.
According to Fred Taylor, state director of Your Right to Vote, increasingly low voter turnout in Arizona led to the development of the initiative.
"Our system in Arizona has to be fixed," said Taylor. "The baby boomers aren't voting, and the baby boomer juniors are voting even less, so unless we get them into the polls in the next 10 to 15 years, the whole system will collapse on itself."
The ballot item, according to Taylor, is a non-partisan effort, which will not only increase voter turnout, but will also help reduce property taxes because Arizona property taxes fund elections.
Farrell Quinlan, spokesperson for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry explains that the Chamber of Commerce is concerned that the proposition will open the door for fraud.
"Once the ballot goes into the mail, it has to get to your mailbox, leaving opportunities for it to be intercepted or tampered with," said Quinlan.
He explains that he also believes the Prop. 205 will limit voters' options on how to vote.
"The trend is up for people voting by mail but still more than half of our voters wait until Election Day to vote," said Quinlan.
Quinlan believes that the current system is efficient, and explains that although the new legislation will still allow voters to go to the polls, there will be very limited polling places, which he believes will lead to long lines, and deter voters from coming out on Election Day.
Florida: Locking up the Constitution
This year on the Florida state ballot, voters will decide whether to approve Amendment 3, which will require broader public support for constitutional amendments or revisions.
Currently, in order to make a constitutional amendment in Florida, an issue needs to receive 50% plus 1, making it one of the easiest constitutions to change in the country.
"The purpose behind making the constitution hard to change is to ensure that the minority is protected against the majority in making sweeping changes to the legislature," said David Simmons, a Republican state representative in Florida.
Simmons, who helped draft the new legislation, argues that it will require any revisions to the state constitution to pass with 60% of the vote, which will protect the state constitution against special interests.
He believes that in an age of slick advertising and mass media, individuals are often not fully aware of the implications behind Constitutional changes. This proposal will curb legislation from quickly becoming part of the state constitution.
"People think it's taking the power away from the people, but it's really taking power away from the special interests to manipulate the vote," said Simmons.
According to votesmartflorida.org, opponents of Amendment 3 say that requiring a higher percentage of the electorate could diminish an initiative's chances of being approved.
These critics, who include the AFL-CIO, ACORN, Common Cause, and the Christian Family Coalition, believe that it is critical that citizens have the ability to take issues that are not being passed by the state Legislature and put them on the state ballot, and that changing the number of votes needed to pass a Constitutional Amendment will limit voter's rights.
Simmons argues that the increase will allow more time for a proposed amendment to be approved, which will in turn allow individuals to hear more debate about an issue and to understand and educate themselves before the issue passes.
"This amendment is an excellent way to ensure protection of the rights of all people in Florida," says Simmons.
Simmons also believes that special interests are able to quickly pass Constitutional Amendments by developing fancy advertising, a catchy name, and providing little background or debate about the bill, leaving the public with limited understanding of the broader implications of the amendment.
California: Building toward the future
After a long struggle to make it on the ballot, California residents will finally get the chance this November to vote on whether they want to approve a transportation bond, Prop. 1B.
The bond was initially part of a larger $37 million bond, which encompassed bonds for education, housing and flood control.
However, California state law prohibits legislation to be passed that includes more than one subject.
The large bond measure was subsequently divided into four individual initiatives.
The transportation bond was created as a bi-partisan effort between four state senators.
"Literally it was the old school way of doing things," explained Brian Kelly, a policy consultant to Senate President Pro-Tem Don Perata, one of Prop. 1B's architects. "We had a series of meetings with four legislative leaders, and came to a compromise."
Ultimately, explained Kelly, the democratic leaders who represented urban areas pushed to increase funding for public transportation, and the Republican leadership wanted to see the investments put into highway construction.
The result was a compromise of the two, dividing the dollars equally between the different program initiatives; allotting an amount for highway construction, an amount for public transportation, and a separate amount for both, depending on local or regional priorities.
"I think our job in the legislature, should these bills pass, is to make sure these investments are in the places we intended for them to go," says Kelly.
That's easier said than done.
About Andrea Posig
Andrea Posig is a freelance journalist living in New York.