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The State of the States

Friday, May 1, 1998

Mixed Bag on Preferences

By a vote of 19-11, the Arizona state senate defeated a proposal in late February to eliminate race and gender preferences. Seven Republicans joined all 12 Democrats in opposing the ban. Sponsors of the proposal, which was modeled closely on California’s Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative), now plan to put the measure on the November ballot. Meanwhile, the South Carolina house of representatives approved a bill to ban preferences in state government programs by a lopsided vote of 74 to 37, and in California, Governor Pete Wilson issued an executive order in March ending quotas and set-asides in state contracting.

The Devil in the Details

Tucked away in the long list of voter initiatives on California’s June ballot is Proposition 223, a statute that would bar school districts from spending more than 5 percent for administration beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. Conservative legislators and education reformers who have seen similar proposals stymied in the legislature over the years rushed to endorse the measure, until Royce Van Tassell, a researcher at the Pacific Research Institute, (http://www.pacificresearch.org/) dug into the fine print. Van Tassell’s suspicions were aroused by the fact that the initiative was sponsored by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, one of the most militant teachers unions in California. Buried deep in the initiative’s language is a cleverly worded clause that would prohibit school districts from contracting out services such as transportation, cafeteria and food service, and security.

If it passes, the initiative jeopardizes several charter schools in California that have relied heavily on contracted services to maximize resources for the classroom. It appears that teachers unions see the independence of charter schools as a threat to their influence and as the leading edge of a school-voucher movement. Several conservative legislators have withdrawn their endorsement of the initiative.

School Choice Breakthrough

In a closely watched and hard-fought battle, the Southeast Delco school board in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, approved a voucher plan for its students. The board voted 7-0 to provide $250 for students attending private kindergarten, $500 for grades one through eight, and $1,000 for high school. With a total enrollment of more than 4,000 students and rising, the district thinks the voucher plan will actually save money by reducing the need for costly new facilities to meet rising enrollment.

The plan is expected to cost the school district about $1.2 million next year. Both People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State lobbied against the plan.

A Race to the Top

One of the leading arguments against the devolution of welfare policy—that states freed from federal mandates would engage in a "race to the bottom"—is showing up again in the debate over environmental policy. Both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Reason Public Policy Institute (http://www.reason.org) have argued that the next step in devolution to the states could come in the form of federal environmental "waivers" similar to the early welfare waivers that allowed the experiments in Wisconsin and elsewhere to go forward. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has indicated his interest in the idea.

Anticipating the "race to the bottom" argument, RPPI has studied examples of current state and local efforts at environmental protection that approach the problems of wildlife protection, resource use, and industrial pollution more creatively than the feds. State and local efforts emphasize problem-solving over punishment and cooperation with the private sector over regulatory compliance. For example, Illinois established a "Clean Break" program for businesses willing to declare and correct environmental violations voluntarily. The program gives small businesses assistance and relief from penalties if they comply with relevant regulations within a reasonable amount of time.

A Strike at Union Activism

The June vote on California’s Proposition 226, the "Paycheck Protection Act" that would prohibit labor unions from using dues for political purposes without the express permission of individual union members, has drawn intense interest. In the meantime, the Wyoming legislature has quietly enacted a "paycheck protection" law. Governor Jim Geringer signed the law on March 12. Wyoming is the fourth state (after Washington, Michigan, and Indiana) to enact some form of paycheck protection legislation. Initiatives similar to California’s Prop 226 appear headed for the November ballot in Oregon and Nevada, as well.

Alice in Zoningland

The controversy over "suburban sprawl" is increasingly reminiscent of the scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice enters a large dining room to find the red queen and two of her minions: "The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. ‘No room! No room!’ they cried out, when they saw Alice coming. ‘There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large armchair at one end of the table."

The red queen could be the head of the planning and zoning commission in any of a number of American metropolitan areas. Despite the fact that developed urban and suburban areas use up only about 3 percent of the total land area of the continental U.S., the leading concern of local planners today is that we are "running out" of land. This controversy is especially acute in western states such as Arizona and New Mexico, both of which are only about 1 percent urbanized. Environmentalists in Arizona are sponsoring a ballot initiative that would require communities to adopt Oregon-style urban boundaries, which compel higher-density development. The New Mexico state legislature is considering a similar measure.

Challenging the Edifice Complex

While voters in San Francisco and Tampa, Florida, are the latest to approve expensive bond measures to subsidize new stadiums at the behest of sports plutocrats, voters in the "small market" city of Pittsburgh rejected a bond measure for new stadiums for their football and baseball teams. The "no" vote was 65 percent.

Undeterred, Pittsburgh’s civic leaders may approach the voters again with a proposal to hike the sales tax by a percentage point and boost the hotel tax to support construction of two new $200-million stadiums (the two teams each want their very own single-purpose stadiums). The Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Institute, which spearheaded the successful opposition to the previous measure, has weighed in with sensible alternatives to a tax hike, such as facility naming rights, stadium advertising, luxury box rentals, and other revenue sources. Altogether Allegheny estimates that such internal revenue streams could provide up to $440 million, enough to build both desired stadiums or renovate Three Rivers Stadium. Team owners, of course, would rather have the taxpayers foot the bill so that they can keep these revenue streams for themselves.

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