Man holding pro-marijuana sign

Voters in a number of states are being asked whether smoking marijuana should be legal.

Elvert Barnes Protest Photography/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Election Day, science also on the ballot in some states

Voters who go to the polls on Tuesday will not just choose the next president and other lawmakers. They will also weigh in on some 154 state ballot initiatives on topics ranging from gun control and marijuana legalization to minimum wage increases and environmental policy. Among those with a science component are a Washington state initiative that would establish the country’s first carbon tax to fight climate change, a biomedical research initiative in Montana, and several marijuana- and tobacco-related initiatives.

Here’s a rundown:

In Washington, a tough political climate for carbon taxation

The state’s carbon tax proposal—Initiative 732 (I-732)—has garnered opposition from an unexpected source: environmental groups. The proposal is modeled on a carbon tax imposed by British Columbia in Canada. It envisions a “tax swap.” The state government would impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions starting at $15 per metric ton. It would rise to $25 per metric ton after a year, and then increase 3.5% a year after that, up to a ceiling of $100 per metric ton. But the government would return the carbon tax’s revenues to state residents, mostly through a 1% sales tax reduction, making the proposal revenue neutral.

Carbon Washington, a multistakeholder coalition that is sponsoring the initiative, says the tax swap addresses one of the most common problems with carbon tax proposals: Their burden tends to fall disproportionately on the poor. By also cutting the state’s sales tax—another tax that tends to burden the poor more than others—the measure helps offset that impact. (The initiative also adds a tax rebate for working families.)

Perhaps mindful of the political sensitivity of tax proposals, the group wastes no time explaining on its website that, on balance, taxes wouldn’t actually go up: “I-732 is not a tax increase. It will not increase the size of government, its budget, or the total amount of taxes we pay. I-732 simply shifts our existing tax burden away from the goods, businesses, and families we want and onto the carbon pollution we don’t want.”

But I-732 has faced a lot of opposition, and not simply from the usual suspects in the fossil fuel industry and antitax conservative groups. It is also taking friendly fire. A coalition of environmental and labor groups (the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy) opposes the measure, even though many of those same groups have supported strong actions to cut carbon emissions over the years.

Here’s why they oppose it: They want to use the carbon tax revenue to invest in clean energy and green infrastructure, and they want stronger action to protect low-income communities and communities of color from climate change. I-732, the coalition says, does neither. The Alliance worked with Carbon Washington for many months to try to bridge the divide over the carbon pricing system’s design, but that effort fell short by the time ballot initiative deadlines arrived.

As Grist’s Rebecca Leber reports, the traditional conservative-liberal schism on carbon pricing has only grown more complicated as environmental groups seek to push for environmental justice protections, whether regarding the poor or people of color. By structuring the tax so that it appeals more to small-government conservatives, Carbon Washington has found it tough to placate labor and environmental activists. Given this political schism, I-732 faces a murky future at the polls, even in liberal-leaning Washington state.

Biomedical research spending

Two states—California and Colorado—are sponsoring ballot initiatives to raise their respective cigarette taxes, with some of the revenues going toward tobacco-related health research.

California’s Proposition 56 would institute a $2-per-pack hike and provide 5% of its revenues for research at the University of California. Colorado’s Amendment 72 would institute a $1.75-per-pack tax hike (a 75% hike from current levels) and a separate 22% tax hike on other tobacco products, with 27% of revenues going to cardiovascular and pulmonary research.

Both measures enjoy support from a wide range of advocacy groups in public health, labor, and children’s issues. But opposition groups call them a special-interest giveaway for health insurance companies, with only 13% of tax revenues going toward smoking cessation efforts in California and 20% in Colorado.

Finally, Montana has another ballot measure, Initiative 181, that would issue $20 million in bonds over 10 years for a body tasked with overseeing and peer reviewing grant applications for research into a range of diseases, especially brain and neurological ones. The new peer-review panel’s members would include Montana physicians, nurses, veterans, and tribesmen.

Wildlife trafficking

Oregon’s Measure 100 seeks to crack down on wildlife trafficking by banning sales and purchases of animal parts from a dozen species: elephants, rhinoceroses, whales, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, pangolins, sea turtles, sharks (except the spiny dogfish), and rays. The pro–Measure 100 Oregon Coalition to Save Endangered Animals frames the measure as a way to crack down on animal poaching, cruelty, and extinction, and to tackle illegal wildlife trade.

The measure—which has parallels with Washington state’s successful 2015 measure backed by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen—does include several exemptions, including for “the donation of a covered animal species part or product to a bona fide scientific or education institution for scientific or educational purposes.” It hasn’t yet garnered major formal opposition.

A solar-scale canard?

In Florida, a state constitutional amendment backed by power companies frames itself as a pro–solar power measure. Some climate activists (along with the solar industry and a variety of free-marketers and clean energy activists) have attacked it, however, saying the measure is a canard.

The proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, “establishes a right under Florida’s constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” It also would ensure that Floridians who don’t install their own solar panels “are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

The problem, the amendment’s many critics say: Floridians can already install their own solar panels anyway, but the language “for their own use” means the measure effectively bars Floridians from selling their excess home-generated solar power back to utilities. That would remove one of the financial incentives for homeowners to install the panels. And some critics suggest that the measure would even allow utilities to charge homeowners a fee for connecting their solar panels to the grid.

As a result, former Vice President Al Gore, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his climate activism, has called the initiative “phony baloney.” Key Florida newspapers such as the Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel, and Miami Herald have come out in opposition, calling the measure deceptive. Consumers for Smart Solar, the group sponsoring the effort, has outraised its opposition group, Floridians for Solar Choice, by an 11-to-1 ratio, $26.4 million to $2.4 million thanks to millions in contributions from major electric utilities.

More marijuana, more money

Beyond that, nine states will put marijuana-related initiatives before voters. Initiatives in five of these states—Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada—would legalize marijuana for recreational use for people over the age of 21 and tax/regulate it to various degrees. (Mashable’s Peter Allen Clark has put together a more comprehensive guide to these recreational marijuana initiatives.)

In California, some conservation groups are supporting legalization, arguing it would place new controls on illegal marijuana farms that damage wildlife habitat, and also steer new tax revenues to parks and wildlife programs.

Initiatives in three other states—Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota—would legalize marijuana use for certain medical conditions. Meanwhile, Montana has a ballot initiative that would expand its existing medical marijuana program by repealing the state’s three-patient-per-provider limit.

Genetically modified mosquitoes

In Florida, some voters will be weighing in on whether to allow the release of genetically modified mosquitoes, designed to suppress populations of mosquitoes that carry Zika and dengue viruses. Click here to read ScienceInsider’s coverage of the Florida vote.