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Metro Economic Growth Measures on the Down-Ballot Slate

As we move into the final days of the campaign season, all eyes are trained on the race for the presidency. But the presidential election is far from the only item on Americans’ ballots. In 38 states, voters will be asked to decide on a whole host of ballot measures on topics ranging from marriage equality to international trade infrastructure and from medical marijuana to tax policy.

Of the 176 ballot questions that will be put to voters on November 6, an important subset focuses on efforts to transform and shape state and regional economies for future growth.

With public services facing further cuts and budgets trimmed to the bone, most states and metro areas find their ability to invest in bolstering economic growth severely limited. In response to these constraints, many places have embraced ballot measures as a potential source of dedicated funds for targeted investments.

For example, as cuts to education funding begin to take their toll, several states and metro areas are asking voters to make sizable investments in K-12 and post-secondary education. Arizona voters will decide whether to renew a one-cent sales tax that will halt potential cuts to K-12 funding while also providing scholarships for community colleges and universities, investments in vocational education, and support for other key projects. In New Jersey, the “Building Our Future Bond Act” seeks $750 million for capital improvements at the state’s public and private colleges and universities. And in Texas, San Antonians will vote on the “Pre-K 4 SA initiative,” a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund all-day pre-kindergarten, while Houston voters will decide on bond issues for area public schools ($1.89 billion) and community colleges ($425 million).

Transit is also big this year, with 13 states voting on 18 measures next Tuesday. Transit measures have found continued success in recent years, with a 77 percent success rate from 2008 to 2012. Even in spite of the Great Recession, voters continue to demonstrate their belief that transit is worth the investment.

The year in transit measures got off to a rocky start with the July 31 defeat of Georgia’s “Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax” (TSPLOST). Only three of the state’s 12 regions voted in favor of this tax and, as my colleague Adie Tomer and I noted earlier this year, Atlanta residents made it clear that they weren’t interested in paying more for better transportation infrastructure. But just one week later, Michigan residents affirmed their support for transit, with 27 measures approved across the state. Indeed, as the Center for Transportation Excellence has shown, transit measures this year have had an 85 percent success rate, with 33 wins to just six losses.

November 6 brings another round of measures, including Los Angeles County’s Measure J, which would extend the half-cent sales tax instituted by 2008 Measure R for an additional 30 years. This sales tax extension would allow the Los Angeles region to accelerate key transit projects, which means that area residents would benefit from their investments sooner than originally planned.

In addition to helping L.A. residents get around easier, Measure J will also create jobs in a region with 12 percent unemployment. By accelerating the projects funded through Measure R, Measure J would produce up to an estimated 250,000 jobs over the next decade, half in construction. Measure J polls well with broad support, as the twinned issues of traffic relief and job creation seem to resonate strongly with L.A. voters.

At the state level, California of course has a number of key propositions on the November ballot. Given the dysfunction and partisan rancor in the California legislature, many Californians feel that the ballot measure is one of the only ways to effect change.

Proposition 31, the “Government Performance and Accountability Initiative,” aims to address the problems of California state government head-on by instituting a series of governance reforms, including establishing a two-year budget cycle and granting the governor the authority to cut the state budget if the legislature fails to act during declared fiscal emergencies.

Californians will also vote on Proposition 39, which would bolster job creation by closing tax loopholes for multistate businesses and use up to $550 million per year of the revenue that results to fund energy-efficiency and clean-energy projects in the state.

And Proposition 30, the “Sales and Income Tax Increase Initiative,” would restore funds cut from K-12 and community colleges by increasing personal income tax for those earning more than $250,000 a year and instituting a quarter-cent sales tax for four years. A competing measure, Proposition 38, would provide K-12 funding by raising state income tax rates for most California residents. While investment in education is sorely needed, there’s growing concern that neither proposition will pass, since voters faced with similar measures tend to vote no on both.

So as you watch the returns roll in on Election Night, do keep an eye out for these ballot measures. This might just be the start of a new trend in public investments to strengthen metropolitan economies.