Ballot Measures Can Help Strengthen State and Regional Economies

Securing funds for critical economy-shaping investments in America’s metropolitan areas is proving harder than ever. Declining support from Washington and budgetary challenges in states and metro areas are leaving regional leaders with few options.

As a result, many state and local leaders are now looking for other ways to finance the public investments that their economies so critically need, whether for technology development, all-day pre-kindergarten, or essential infrastructure projects.

The hunt for alternatives has led some regional innovators to turn to ballot measures as one possible solution. Rooted in a tradition of bottom-up, proactive political action that dates back to the Populist movement of the late 19th century, ballot measures let voters decide whether particular projects are worthy of investment.

Our new paper explores how states and metro areas might use initiatives and referendums to secure funds for large-scale economy-shaping efforts when investment is needed but can’t be obtained through conventional channels. 

To an important extent, ballot-driven investment at the state and metropolitan levels reflects the shift in power dynamics currently underway in the United States. As my colleagues Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley have shown in their book The Metropolitan Revolution, cities and metro areas are increasingly taking the lead on addressing the major challenges facing their communities. Ballot measures on economy-shaping actions can thus be seen as another way that states and regions are engaging in the decentralized problem-solving that our federalist system makes possible. 

Through the course of our research, we’ve found a number of compelling examples of ballot measures that advance public investment in economic growth. From Ohio’s 2005 and 2010 investments in its Third Frontier technology-based economic development initiative to a $750 million bond issue for New Jersey’s postsecondary institutions in 2012 to Los Angeles County’s Measure R funding critical transit investments in 2004, voters have demonstrated a willingness to commit their tax dollars to efforts that seek to bolster the health of their area economies—particularly when it comes to investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure.

We’re not arguing that ballot-driven financing should supplant more conventional modes of public finance. Rather, we see ballot measures as an additional potential tool for state and metro leaders as they work to restructure their economies for long-term prosperity. At their best, ballot-driven investments complement existing public finance mechanisms.

Looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, ballot measures will continue to play an important role in driving action on key economic challenges. A number of states have already certified measures that aim to increase the minimum wage, invest in water infrastructure, and support individuals seeking postsecondary education. We’ll be watching how these and other compelling measures fare at the polls. In the meantime, leaders and communities engaged in the hard work of advancing their economies should consider whether ballot-driven investment might help them achieve their goals.