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for people who care about the West

What's at stake in this November's off-year elections


Next week's elections will come and go relatively peacefully. And for that we can be thankful. To simultaneously endure the hyperbolic screeching of political mailers and television ads, along with the federal government's self-implosion, would have broken even the most committed of citizens. Then again, a high-stakes election season probably would've saved the federal government from itself, as the shutdown would've met the immediate wrath of voters. But, I digress.

It's an electoral off year. The partisan balance of the U.S. Senate or House isn't up for grabs. Neither is the White House, nor any executive office in the Western states. Nevertheless, there are a few votes to be taken next Tuesday at the state and local levels worth paying attention to. After all, if we've learned

A scene from Denver's annual pro-pot rally, on April 20, 2013.
anything in the past month, it's that civic engagement at these levels of government  where the real business of governing is perhaps more likely to actually take place is more important than ever.

Below are a few votes to watch.

Colorado: Forbidding fracking

The Centennial State is actually host to quite a lively political season. Its most pitched fights revolve around oil and gas development, and whether cities and counties have the power to make their own rules for how  or whether it goes down within their borders. Four communities along the urbanized Front Range will vote on drilling bans or moratoriums. The groups pushing these measures, however, face considerable opposition from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which is spending heavily to defeat the timeouts. For a thorough analysis of the push for local control of drilling in Colorado, check out Josh Zaffos' story from our Sept. 2 issue.

Taxing the rich, taxing pot

Two tax issues will appear on statewide ballots. Amendment 66 would replace Colorado's flat tax on personal income with a two-tiered progressive tax. Coloradans with taxable incomes over $75,000 a year would pay 5.9 percent, and those making less than that would pay 5 percent, with the extra revenue going to schools. Specifically, the tax increase would fund an education reform package passed by the state legislature that includes increasing funding to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Gov. John Hickenlooper has gone so far as to call the law in need of funding "the most comprehensive education-reform initiative in the history of the United States."

In preparation for the debut of Colorado's recreational marijuana market, voters will also consider a 15 percent excise tax and 10 percent sales tax on pot that have divided the budding industry. Proponents say the taxes are necessary to adequately regulate the ganja biz, and to provide additional revenue for schools, as required by the legalization law. Opponents worry the taxes are too high, and will allow the black market to outcompete the regulated market, negating the whole legalization effort.


Climate hawks spend big on Whatcom County Council and state Senate races

What's local is global in Washington this year. Whatcom County is one of Washington's northernmost counties, home to 201,000 residents, and North Cascades National Park. It also sits on the ocean. And within its coastline sits a port whose future is nearly as contentious as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. North of Bellingham is one of the Northwest's proposed coal export terminals, from which coal companies hope to ship the mineral riches of the Powder River Basin off to Asia. Environmentalists believe new coal export facilities on the West Coast would deal another death blow to the climate, by opening up markets for coal that might otherwise be left in the ground. While the issue is being debated at the state and federal level, the Whatcom County Council could, in a few years' time, scuttle the whole scheme when a formal proposal comes before it. For that reason, environmentalists and coal companies alike are pouring cash into races for seats on the council, with each trying to "flip" it in their favor, according to the Seattle Times.

Among the environmentalists spending big money on those races is Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge fund billionaire and climate hawk who recently left the investing biz to devote himself – and his money – to shifting the political tides on climate change. Steyer is also spending heavily on a contentious Washington State Senate race that could help determine the partisan balance of that chamber. The Democrat whom Steyer is supporting, Nathan Schlicher, is an ally of Gov. Jay Inslee, widely seen as one of the most pro-environment governors in the country. The Republican, Jan Angel, has voiced some skepticism about climate science, though her views on the subject are a bit murky.

Climate change does not appear to be the issue this race will pivot on for voters. Rather, Steyer is likely interested in the race because with Inslee in the governor's office and a Senate controlled by Democrats, Washington would be well-positioned to become a leader among states on climate issues.

GMO labeling

If voters approve Initiative 522, Washington could also become the first Western state to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, and the first state in the nation to implement such a mandate. Proponents argue that consumers have a right to know what's in their food, and some contend that the health effects of GMOs are unknown. (It should be noted that even conscientious eating guru Michael Pollan has gone on record saying such fears are largely unfounded.) Opponents decry the cost of labeling, and say labels risk misleading consumers about the safety of GMOs. The actual effect labeling would have on consumers' decision to buy products containing GMOs, however, remains unclear, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports"The psychological research ... suggests that when you give people choice over risk, they're less afraid of it," says David Ropeik, a writer who specializes in how people assess risk. "Assuming that (the label) was something short of a skull and crossbones, it's likely that many people would accept it and say, 'Fine, I'll buy it!' "

Connecticut and Maine have approved similar GMO labeling laws, but their implementation is dependent on more states following suit. A GMO-labeling initiative in California failed last year, and polls say that Washington's 522 is too close to call.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News. She Tweets @callycarswell. Photo courtesy Flickr user macwiz.