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Through a Planner's Lens: Voter Responses to Infrastructure, Environment, Clean Energy, and Finance Measures in the November 2008 Elections

May 2009

Citation: ELR 10362

Author: Phyllis Myers

On November 4, 2008, voters around the country considered 153 statewide ballot measures in 36 states, including 84 measures referred by state legislatures and 59 citizen-driven initiatives. In the post-election media analysis, many ballot pundits focused on the outcomes of elections involving social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, and gave little attention to the 47 measures--almost one-third of the total--that will arguably more directly influence the pace, direction, and shape of growth in America's communities and regions. To provide a fuller picture of voter responses to planning issues at this time of great uncertainty for the American economy and its impact on development, this Article provides an analysis of these 47 measures and finds surprising grassroots support for publicly supported programs and funding for infrastructure, environment, and renewable energy.

As a planner who has tracked state and local developmentrelated measures for almost 15 years, I have often found fresh, important insights bubbling up from these recurring referendums. A 1998 survey for the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Center caught the nascent wave of discontent about prevailing development that fueled the Smart Growth movement, while scattered grassroots transit measures identified in 2000 helped spark a new era of ballot box fundraising and longer range conversations aimed at revamping transportation finance. In 2006, an unpopular U.S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain quickly resonated in a series of statewide referendums that influenced public opinion far more than actions in state legislatures.

This year, economic turmoil and a scramble for funds to continue states' larger role in community development programs provide a changed context. Voters approved nearly all of the bonds proposing funds for transportation, conservation, and water quality improvements. (This tracks with national trends: according to Bond Buyer, "voters were faced with the second largest crop of bonds ever in 2008, and overall approval rates came to more than 80%.") Voters were also "sophisticated" in their responses to ballot issues, observes National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) ballot expert Jennie Drage Bowser, and did not simply vote to cut taxes and lower spending.

Phyllis Myers is president of State Resource Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant firm.

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