14 Successful Ballot Initiatives to Reduce Inequality
While all eyes have been on the race for the White House, voters in states across the country also weighed in on economic proposals with huge implications for inequality. Here are 14 successful ballot initiatives that will help narrow the divides for millions.
Tax increases on the wealthy and corporations
- San Franciscans delivered two of the biggest victories in the fight over fair taxation, including a measure to raise the real estate transfer tax on sales of properties values above $10 million.
- Another successful San Francisco measure will increase taxes on corporations that pay their CEO more than 100 times their median employee in that city. My Institute for Policy Studies colleague Sarah Anderson explains how this proposal will encourage corporations to narrow their pay gaps while generating revenue for programs to reduce poverty and inequality.
- Voters in Oregon’s Multnomah County— home of Portland — approved a plan to provide “preschool for all” with a tax on higher earners in that county. As my Portland-based colleague Robert Alvarez writes, this progressive victory is the result of effective coalition-building around bold goals, from addressing racial disparities in access to preschool to paying educators a living wage.
- Arizona’s Proposition 208, which would increase taxes on incomes above $250,000 to pay for higher teacher salaries and better schools, passed as well.
- Colorado voters approved a statewide paid medical and family leave program, funded by a payroll tax.
On the down side, residents of cash-strapped Illinois rejected a constitutional amendment to replace their regressive “flat” income tax with graduated progressive rates. Another disappointing failure: California’s Proposition 15, which would’ve raised funds for schools and local governments by taxing commercial and industrial properties worth more than $3 million at their market value rather than their purchase price.
- Despite intense opposition from the restaurant and tourism industries, more Floridians voted in favor of raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 (over six years) than voted for Donald Trump.
- In the Maine city of Portland, voters also approved a $15 proposal (with a three-year phase-in). In both Florida and Maine, the wage hike proposals received an impressive 60 percent support.
On the mega-bummer front: Californians approved Proposition 22, a corporate-backed effort to overturn a state law requiring Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other platform-based firms to classify their workers as employees, with basic labor rights, instead of as independent contractors. Uber and Lyft spent $200 million to essentially write their own labor law in California and they are already exploring similar strategies in other states. See Bama Athreya’s analysis for Inequality.org.
- As the country faces a surge in evictions and foreclosures, several ballot proposals addressed homelessness and the need for affordable housing. For example, voters in Portland, Maine approved rent caps and increased tenant protections.
- In King County, Washington, voters approved a proposal to allow the county to sell, lease, or transfer properties for below-market value if it’s used for affordable housing.
- San Francisco approved a bond measure to use $487.5 million from property taxes to fund housing for homelessness and mental health facilities, as well as a proposal to build 10,000 units of affordable housing.
Despite the state’s affordable housing crisis, California voters resoundingly rejected Proposition 21, which would’ve let local governments enact rent control on almost all rental housing more than 15 years old. San Diego voters also failed to give an affordable housing ballot measure the super-majority needed to pass.
- As my colleague Basav Sen has written, barriers to public transit “make it harder for people — particularly people of color and poor people — from being able to get to jobs, school, and wherever else they need to go.” Unfortunately, several of the public transit proposals on this year’s ballots were based on sales tax increases, which fall most heavily on the poor. An important exception: in Austin, Texas, voters approved a plan to raise property taxes to fund a $7 billion project to expand bus and rail lines across the city.
Sadly, in the Portland, Oregon metro area, voters rejected a proposal to increase payroll taxes on firms with more than 25 employees to pay for public transit expansion.
Money in Politics
- By an overwhelming 79-21 margin, Oregon voters passed Measure 107, which will limit campaign contributions and spending and force more transparency for campaign spending and funding and for political advertisements.
Ranked-choice voting had an unsuccessful election day, failing in both Massachusetts and Alaska. This approach makes the electoral process more equitable by boosting the chances of third party and independent candidates without deep-pocket donors.
- In Denver, voters approved a proposal to allow their city to provide internet, phone, and TV services as a public utility. This should help narrow the “digital divide” in a city where 20 percentof residents, who are disproportionately people of color, lack broadband internet. It should also help loosen Comcast and Century Link’s current domination of the local market.
Criminalization of Poverty
- In Los Angeles County, residents voted to allocate 10 percent of the county’s revenues towards community investment programs that provide alternatives to incarceration. This was among a long list of important criminal justice reforms on ballots across the country.
On the discouraging side, California voters rejected a measure that would have gotten rid of cash bail, a system that results in poor people being detained while they await trial for weeks or even months.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on October 22, 2020.