As we begin to unravel our new political reality, one fact has become increasingly apparent: Ballot measures have become the best political tool to make the types of policy changes that will help working families.
We live in a time of widespread economic suffering. Real wages have stagnated for more than a generation now. In many states, spending on K-12 education has not reached pre-Great Recession levels, leaving schools scrambling to prepare children to participate in an economy that increasingly depends on an educated workforce. Meanwhile, our children are traveling to school on crumbling roads and bridges. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report from earlier this year found that state and local spending on infrastructure is at a 30-year low.
There are, of course, readily available policy solutions to all of these problems. Raising the minimum wage would help all workers take home a bigger paycheck. State education budgets can be augmented through a progressive tax structure. And infrastructure can be repaired when federal, state and local governments have appropriate funding.
Republicans have historically failed to enact these kinds of policy reforms. And with the GOP controlling the White House, both chambers of Congress and two-thirds of state legislatures, it seems unlikely that any of these issues will be tackled without a direct appeal to the people.
The good news is that despite Tuesday’s conservative wave, when presented with ballot measures to raise wages, fund schools and finance infrastructure projects, voters approved them. Ballot measures to raise the minimum wage passed in four states — each state in which the issue was on the ballot. Californians overwhelmingly chose to increase revenue for education and health care by extending an income tax on that state’s highest earners. And nationwide, voters allotted more than $200 billion in municipal transit funding, more than during any one election in our nation’s history.
As we stare down a politically uncertain four years, we will need ballot measures more than ever to pass policy that especially supports people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people and working families, who are not likely to get many policy considerations from the Trump administration.
Nationwide, this year’s ballot measure slate was already one of the most progressive in recent memory. But after Tuesday, it’s clear that ballot initiatives must become an even more powerful tool to increase economic security for working families.
At the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center we are already one year into a multi-year plan to strengthen progressive ballot measure campaigns across the country. We want to ensure that whatever happens in the White House and in state legislatures, progress towards increasing the economic security of working people continues. We are currently working with groups across the country to put other economic policies such as equal pay, earned sick leave and paid parental leave on ballots around the country in 2018 and beyond.
Ballot measures aren’t a solution to every problem of course. First, citizen-initiated statutes are only available in 24 states. Also, too often they are influenced by corporate interests. Ballot measure campaigns are costly and putting too many measures on the ballot often frustrates and confuses voters.
Still, our country’s economic problems are too great to sit and wait for a new President Trump, Congress or state legislatures to act. As we move through what is likely to be an economically tumultuous time for many of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, ballot measures are very likely one of the best means we have to increase economic security for all Americans.
Justine Sarver is the executive director at Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
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