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Who Are the 'Progressives' These Days?

By Thomas Bray

If you are trying to detect long-range political trends, keep your eye on the more than 200 propositions scheduled to appear on 32 state ballots this November. In 1994 the big issue on state ballots was term limits. A decade later it was gay marriage. On both issues the conservative view emerged as a solid winner.

This year could be different, but there still appears to lots of conservative energy at the grassroots level. Curbs on government takings will be on the ballot in at least 12 states. Eight more states have slotted votes on whether to allow gay marriage. There are some 40 tax measures, most of which, including so-called Taxpayer Bills of Rights (TABOR) in at least four states, would sharply restrict government revenue and spending.

When the dust settles, the left is likely to be able to claim some victories. The TABOR proposals may be judged a bridge too far by many voters, even those disgusted by the binge-spending of their elected politicians. A ban on racial preferences on the Michigan ballot appears to be a tossup. Union interests have succeeded in placing an increase in the minimum wage, which fares well in most polls, on the ballot in six states.

And California voters, if they approve five bond proposals totaling $43 billion for "infrastructure," may signal that the era of big government is definitely back - even under a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the main, however, ballot propositions have been the friend of conservatives for the last quarter century. There is considerable irony in that. The Initiative and Referendum Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Southern California School of Law, notes that the I&R movement of the early 20th century was spawned by progressives who shared a Jeffersonian belief in the basic wisdom of the people. They saw direct voting on issues as a way to bypass supposedly hidebound, corrupt legislatures.

But beginning in 1978 with voter approval of California's famous Proposition 13, which limited property taxes, the biggest users of the ballot proposal became conservative populists. The progressives, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, were relegated to standing athwart history, yelling stop, as one conservative proposal after another was enacted into law by voters rebelling against the nanny state.

Indeed, the emerging strategy of the left is to prevent people from voting at all on many ballot proposals. In Montana this summer, left-wing critics persuaded a district judge to throw a TABOR proposal - as well as a measure that would subject judges to the recall process - off the ballot because of a "pattern" of fraud by petition gatherers. (The decision is under appeal.) In Missouri a Democratic secretary of state refused to certify the TABOR and eminent domain proposals on the exceedingly fussy grounds the petitions weren't properly numbered by county.

In Michigan, opponents of Proposal 2 ludicrously tried to argue - unsuccessfully as it turned out - that the federal Voting Rights Act required that there be no vote on a measure to ban racial preferences.

And judges in several states have junked proposals barring the taking of private property for the benefit of another private interest on grounds that the proposals violated the "single subject" requirement for ballot issues. The proposals also would have required state compensation for "regulatory takings" - an environmental rule, for example, placing limits on a property's uses. Never mind that the measures had the single purpose of protecting property rights.

Maybe November will show that conservatism is running out of intellectual steam. But the run-up to November already is showing that progressivism ain't what it used to be.

Tom Bray writes columns for The Detroit News and RealClearPolitics.com. Email: tbray@detnews.com

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