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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ballot Referenda

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about various environmental ballot initiatives coming up in this fall’s election.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This year's close presidential election is remarkably free from passion, despite a number of issues that are at critical crossroads, including the environment. But at the state level, feelings are running high over a number of green ballot measures. Joining me now is Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Mark, there are about three dozen voter initiatives that could be considered environmental. And let's start by talking about what's happening in Florida. Now, do I have this right? Voters there are being asked if they want to fight sprawl and congestion by building a high-speed train service?

HERTSGAARD: Yeah, and this is pretty unusual. I was actually just down there in Florida, and voters will be asked whether they want to order the state government to begin construction of a high-speed rail network within Florida beginning in November of 2003. The network would link Florida's five biggest cities, intended to try to get around severe problems that sprawl and the over-reliance on automobiles has caused down in Florida.

CURWOOD: Why don't elected officials want to build such a system there?

HERTSGAARD: Well, Governor Jeb Bush actually scuttled a proposal for a multi-billion dollar project when he first became governor, and he explained it by saying look, I'm afraid that the train will not attract enough riders and that this will put the state into deficit. Interesting, Steve, the guy backing this is a businessman named Doc Dockery. He spent a million and a half dollars of his own money to collect 600,000 signatures to get this on the ballot. He chaired a commission on this for the state ten years ago, got turned down by the government officials, and said okay, I'm not going to take no for an answer; this time I'm going to take it directly to the people.

CURWOOD: Sprawl is a hot button issue in a number of places this year. Where else is it turning up on the state ballot?

HERTSGAARD: Well, the other place that's really going to be big, Steve, is in Colorado. There is a battle royale there on an initiative, anti-sprawl initiative, that would basically require local governments to put the development plans that they have in front of voters every year, and voters would have to approve it. That means before you can expand the suburbs, before you can build a new sewage system and road systems and all of the extra costs that that's going to involve, that the voters have to approve it. And this initiative, so far, is running narrowly ahead, about 54 percent in the recent polls. Of course, that's a poll by the League of Conservation Voters, which is one of the backers. What's interesting, though, is that they are being outspent eight to one by the pro-development forces, the real estate interests and so forth. They've raised five million dollars to try and turn this back.

CURWOOD: Anyplace else in the west concerned about sprawl?

HERTSGAARD: Well, also Arizona. A similar measure there where citizens would be requiring developers to pay for roads and schools in the new subdivisions in advance and would, again, set development limits. You know, these are the states where it's coming up this year, Steve, but this is something that has been boiling up over years here across the country. And Vice President Gore tried to make a big issue of it earlier in the presidential campaign, precisely because it attracts a lot of those suburban, prosperous, so-called swing voters that both parties are doing so much to try and appeal to this year.

CURWOOD: Of course, there's a lot more to the environment than sprawl. What other issues do the state ballots address on the environment this year, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: A number of things, Steve. I think one I'm going to be interested in watching is up in Maine, an anti-clear-cutting measure. This is not the first time this has come to a vote in Maine, but the environmental groups there are putting forward a measure that would essentially limit clear-cutting, would require the state not only to issue permits to anyone who tries to clear-cut, but through the wording of the ballot make clear-cutting all but impossible. There's also a plan in Missouri that would ban billboards. In Alaska, there's a measure that's going to try and ban the hunting of wolves via airplane. And in Washington and Oregon, another animal protection measure that would ban trapping and poisoning of animals during hunting. So, there's a lot of this that's going on around the country, and, of course, here in California we've got a measure that will basically require a two-thirds vote before we could increase environmental taxes in the state. This is again something that's being pushed by the oil companies and the tobacco companies, and opposed by environmentalists. But it hasn't gotten much attention in the press, and so most of the public doesn't really know about this, and it's very confusingly worded. We'll have to see if people are able to see their way through this.

CURWOOD: It's a very tight presidential race, and yet people don't seem terribly passionate about this race. Will any of these ballot measures put some spark into voters' interests here, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: Well, you know, it's hard to know. I think in places like Colorado or Florida, where the excitement level is very high and passions are running very deep on these initiatives, that might pull more people in. Obviously, we're seeing -- nobody out there in the public seems to be overly excited about voting for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore. But let's say in Florida, for example, if you've got a lot of people going in to vote from an environmental perspective, chances are that might help Mr. Gore a little bit. So, we'll have to see how this plays out. But, you know, at the end of the day, it's the president that you're voting for, I think.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark, for the tour through the states.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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