Where Voters OK'd Spending Billions on New Public Works
Election 2016 also decided minimum-wage, right to work, marijuana and laws
Across the country, voters made their voices heard on ballot questions that will unleash billions of dollars in new project spending. The results also put in place rule changes that, in many cases, will have an impact on owners, firms and employees. Not all items gained support among tax-and-spend weary voters, but some won big.
Voters approved 69% of some 280 state and local transportation funding measures, which Alison P. Black, American Road and Transportation Builders Association chief economist, said was a record number in the U.S., generating more than $201 billion in new funds and spending authority.
California voters strongly endorsed education improvements when they approved Proposition 51, which allows the state to sell $9 billion in general obligation bonds for new and upgraded school facilities. A coalition of builders pushed the school construction bond measure, the first on state ballots since 2006. In fast-growing Colorado, where a record $4-billion of school bond money was up for decision, voters approved about $3 billion. Denver residents overwhelmingly approved, 65% to 35%, a $628-million tax package for new construction and upgrades. But Jefferson County voters rejected, with a 54% majority, a $568-million spending initiative.
Californians OK Most Measures
California voters fought back against the well-financed Proposition 53, the so-called “No Blank Check” initiative, that would have required a statewide vote for revenue bonds above $2 billion on any state-owned or -managed project. The measure, rejected 51% to 49%, was largely funded by a Central Valley landowner opposed to a proposed $15-billion water tunnel and could have complicated financing for the state’s high-speed-rail project.
The state’s largest transportation improvement measure, the $120-billion Measure M in Los Angeles, easily won passage. Through a countywide half-cent sales tax, it will fund a rail tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass and a subway extension to Santa Monica.
Voters on both sides of San Francisco Bay approved a $3.5-billion bond measure to upgrade aging core components of the region’s BART transit infrastructure, including more than 90 miles of track, water-damaged tunnels and the system’s nearly half-century-old train control system. All have contributed to increased service disruptions and other operational issues, although critics claim BART’s woes are due, at least in part, to the agency’s prioritizing system expansion over maintenance. A 30-year, half-cent sales-tax hike approved in Santa Clara County will help to fund a proposed extension to downtown San Jose.
Approved measures also are set to add $6 billion in new tax revenue for California freeway upgrades. But Sacramento’s $3.6-billion road and transit proposal fell short by just over 1% of the needed vote, while opponents of the San Diego Council of Governments’ failed $18-billion public transit and freeway program faulted its emphasis on transit, with only $2.6 billion earmarked for freeways and car-pool lanes. Also defeated in San Diego were two proposals to boost its hotel room tax, which would have directed up to $1.8 billion to a new convention center and football stadium that team owners claim will prevent its relocation.
Washington state voters favored the $54-billion Sound Transit Proposition 1 to expand light-rail and bus operations, but they strongly rejected, 59% to 41%, what would have been the nation’s first carbon-emission tax on the sale or use of certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated power, with proceeds to have offset sales taxes. Industry groups were split on the measure, with architects in favor and building trades and contractor groups against. Proponents are planning to push an alternative plan to state legislators next year to invest tax funds in clean-energy projects.
Nearly 60% of Austin, Texas, voters said yes to issuing $720 million in transportation bonds, the largest such measure approved in the city’s history, while those in Wake County, N.C., approved a 10-year, half-cent sales-tax increase for $2.3 billion to fund commuter-rail and bus rapid transit systems to relieve congestion across Raleigh’s fast-growing suburbs. But in Virginia, work on a light-rail line between Norfolk and Virginia Beach halted on Nov. 9, after voters overwhelmingly rejected $155 million in state funding.
Constitutional amendments for fuel-tax “lockboxes,” which ensure monies are spent exclusively on transportation projects, were approved in Illinois and New Jersey, both of which endured political battles this year over spending. New Jersey proponents celebrated a win after the Garden State’s three-month standoff shuttered state road and rail projects until early October, when a 23¢-per-gallon fuel-tax deal was reached. Some observers were fearful that the increase might have defeated the measure.
Voters also weighed in on issues with likely impacts on industry employees and employers. Colorado voters resoundingly defeated Amendment 69, which would have created the first state-run, single-payer U.S. health-care system, funded largely through payroll and income taxes. Opponents, including many in construction, cited its cost, between $25 billion and $36 billion.
Alabama residents approved enshrining the state’s right-to-work law in its constitution, a measure supported by the Associated Builders and Contractors, but Virginia voters said no to a similar measure. South Dakota defeated an initiative to allow unions to charge non-union workers a fee for services such as collective bargaining.
Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment to prohibit new sales taxes on professional services, something municipal officials envisioned to boost revenue. State realtors pushed for the ban, supported by professional surveyors, interior designers, homebuilders and others. But Gary Elliott, business manager for the Eastern Missouri Laborers' District Council, is concerned that newly-elected Republican Gov. Eric Greitens will push Missouri to also become a right-to-work state. "I can't get a straight answer (in Jefferson City) about how right-to-work works to help bring jobs to the state," he says. "All right-to-work does is squash the workers' ability to bargain collectively."
Employees gained higher minimum-wage rates in four states—Colorado, Arizona, Maine and Washington—although all are below $15, while employers face potential workplace impacts of relaxed marijuana laws in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arkansas, Florida , North Dakota and Montana.