TIME Economy

Minimum-Wage Increases Go Into Effect Across the Country

The wage hikes in several states and D.C. are expected to affect 3.1 million people

Roughly 3.1 million workers across the United States woke up to a little New Year’s Day present on Thursday, January 1, when increases in the minimum wage took effect in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

The recent bumps brought the total number of states with a minimum wage above the federal wage floor to 29, the New York Times reports. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Some of the increases are relatively tiny—a few cents—while some, of a dollar or more, could have a more significant impact on the economy. Minimum wage hikes in more states are set to take effect later in the year, according to the NYT.

The minimum wage hike is expected to impact 3.1 million of the 3.3 million Americans who earn the minimum wage.

[NYT]

TIME 2016 Election

The 9 Times Hillary Clinton Has Taken a Stand Since 2013

USA - Hillary Clinton speaks at Iowa Senator Tom Harken'a annual Steak Fry
Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton gazes pensively into the distance at Iowa Senator Tom Harken'a annual Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa on September 14, 2014. Brooks Kraft—Corbis for TIME

Like other presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton had an opinion on just about everything in 2008. How to reform the U.S. health care system? Check. What to do about climate change? Check. Even minor issues like how to lower the price of gas required her to come up with a plan.

But when she became Secretary of State, Clinton followed tradition and kept her opinions to herself, especially on domestic policy. And since leaving Foggy Bottom in 2013, she’s mostly avoided specifics.

She says she’s in favor of protecting the environment, for example, but has yet to stake out her position on fracking or the Keystone XL pipeline. She says she’s against eliminating net neutrality, but has yet to say what, exactly, the government ought to do to protect it. And while she’s talked a big game about U.S. military engagement abroad, it’s unclear how her positions on, say, Ukraine or Iraq would differ from those of President Obama.

That ambiguity is understandable. She doesn’t hold public office. She’s not officially on the ballot. And committing to a position publicly limits her future options, politically. But given how many times she hasn’t taken a position on the issue of the day, it’s worth noting the handful of times she has.

Here’s a look at the nine most substantive policy positions Clinton has staked out since stepping down as Secretary of State.

1) The U.S. needs serious immigration reform. When President Obama announced his controversial executive order in November shielding up to five million undocumented immigrants, Clinton tweeted her approval within minutes, and then followed up with a statement calling for immediate, bipartisan and comprehensive immigration that would “focus finite resources on deporting felons rather than families.”

2) The U.S. should have armed the rebels in Syria. In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in August, Clinton blamed the rise of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, on the U.S. not doing enough to support moderate rebels when the Syrian civil war first broke out. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she said. That said, Clinton’s ideas on how to rout ISIS now appear to be more or less the same as Obama’s.

3) Gay people should be allowed to marry. In March 2013, Clinton formally announced in her support for gay marriage, marking a major reversal of the position she’d held for decades. Her rivals criticized her for jumping on the bandwagon only after the issue of gay marriage had become widely acceptable, but she defended herself as a “thinking human” who is allowed to “evolve” on issues.

4) Americans shouldn’t torture people. At a human rights awards dinner in December, Clinton made her first public comments about torture since the Senate released its controversial report on the issue earlier this month. She said unequivocally that she is against illegal renditions and brutal interrogation methods. “The U.S. should never condone or practice torture anywhere in the world,” she said.

5) The federal government should raise the minimum wage. In a speech at a campaign event for Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley in October, Clinton told the crowd not to “let anyone tell you that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs – they always say that.” She then went on to defend raising the federal minimum wage. As a senator, Clinton repeatedly proposed legislation that would automatically increase the federal minimum wage anytime members of Congress saw their own pay increase.

6) Negotiating with Iran is a good idea, so long as the U.S. gets a good deal. Much to the chagrin of many in the pro-Israel crowd, Clinton has not only expressed support for the administration’s negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program, she has taken credit for initiating the secret talks back in 2012. In the past year, she has lightly tempered that unequivocal support by cautioning that the U.S. should be careful about what it concedes to, repeating that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

7) The U.S. shouldn’t trust Putin. At a speaking event this year, Clinton called the Russian President an arrogant bully. As Secretary of State, she said she was in favor of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, but her opinion of the policy appears to have cooled. “I think that what may have happened, is that both the United States and Europe were really hoping for the best from Putin as a returned president,” she told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview in July. “And I think we’ve been quickly, unfortunately, disabused of those hopes.” While those seem like fightin’ words, policy analysts point out that it’s less clear how Clinton’s distrust of Putin would translate to a change in actual U.S. policy—much less potential military engagement—in Ukraine.

8) All American kids should get free, high-quality pre-K. Anyone remotely familiar with Clinton’s resume won’t find this to be much of a shocker, but early-childhood education is one of the issues she’s been most outspoken about in the last two years. She’s advocated for everything from universal pre-K and free nurse home-visits for at-risk mothers, to expanding existing programs, like Head Start and paid family leave.

9) #Blacklivesmatter. Clinton took a shellacking this fall for failing to say much one way or an another on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and about the Eric Garner case in New York. At an awards ceremony in December, she broke her silence—kinda. “Yes, black lives matter,” she said, but then failed to elaborate. She has yet to say whether she’s in favor of broad sentencing reform, body cameras on police, or how she might limit what military equipment is available to police forces.

TIME Retail

Minimum Wage Hikes to Affect More Than 1,400 Walmart Stores

Operations Inside A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Location Ahead Of Black Friday
An employee pulls a forklift with display units for DVD movies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, Calif., on Monday, November 24, 2014. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg / Getty Images

An internal memo details how compensation will be compressed at the top and bottom of the pay scale

An internal Walmart memo circulated to store managers earlier this month shows the retailer estimates that minimum wage hikes in 21 states will affect worker base salaries at 1,434 stores across the United States, according to a new report Wednesday.

The memo obtained by Reuters outlines which positions will be impacted by the hikes when they take effect on Jan. 1. Base salaries for three lower-level positions — cashiers, cart pushers and maintenance workers — will be lumped together under one rate, while the minimum premium pay to workers in supervisor roles like deli associates will narrow to within a closer range of lower grade workers.

Walmart, the country’s biggest private employer with some 1.3 million workers, has struggled to boost sales after Americans lost jobs or already low incomes during the financial crisis. The company estimates that its average full-time hourly wage is $12.92, but its chief executive has indicated Walmart plans to improve opportunities so more of its workers making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can earn more.

Read more at Reuters

MONEY Fast Food

2014 in Fast Food: A Year of Reckoning, Makeovers, and Waffle Tacos

Here's a look back at the strategies big and small, bold and sometimes bizarre, that sought to capture more of your fast food dollars over the past year.

In 2014, Ronald McDonald got a makeover, with the iconic clown mascot sporting supposedly hipper outfits including a vest, cargo pants, and sometimes a bowtie in order to—again, supposedly—win over new customers, especially younger ones. The makeover, widely decried as “desperate,” is symptomatic of a year marked with a wide range of alternately innovative and puzzling changes made by fast food players. In many ways, 2014 was a year of reckoning and upheaval in fast food, and not only for McDonald’s. Click through the gallery below and you’ll see what we mean.

 

  • Breakfast Wars

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    Courtesy of Taco Bell

    The year in fast food got under way with the much-anticipated national launch of a Taco Bell breakfast menu, featuring the Waffle Taco. McDonald’s has thoroughly dominated the fast food breakfast world over the years, and Taco Bell’s encroachment on its turf was equal parts bold and nasty—including ads that mocked McDonald’s for being old-fashioned and outdated, and that used real-life Ronald McDonalds to endorse Taco Bell’s breakfast. The squabbles expanded into a broader war over fast food breakfast, which is the only traditional meal time that’s been experiencing sales growth of late. For its part, McDonald’s has introduced new breakfast options and rolled out free coffee offers twice in 2014 in order to win over customers. While McDonald’s remains the leader in fast food breakfast and chain restaurants overall, the expansion and increased competition from Taco Bell and other players in the fast and fast casual space are a big part why the Golden Arches has struggled mightily—a theme throughout 2014.

  • Personalization

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    ZUMA Press, Inc / Alamy

    Higher quality ingredients and some level of customization in food ordering are highly prized by millennials. They’re also both central parts of the “fast casual experience and prime reasons that Chipotle, Panera Bread, and the rest of the restaurant category are flourishing. To try to stay competitive—and perhaps even hip with the youngsters—old-fashioned brands such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s raised the bar on personalized orders in 2014. The former introduced a whole new menu featuring six new sauces, 11 new crusts, and four spicy “drizzles” that can be mixed and matched, while the latter has been frantically expanding a build-your-own burger concept to offset underwhelming sales.

  • Expanding Menus

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    Alamy

    In addition to expanded breakfast and more personalization options, plenty of quick-service restaurants plodded on with a years-in-the-making trend of bolstering up menu choices in general. At the start of 2014, McDonald’s franchise owners were complaining about how large the menu had gotten—25 items for the “Dollar Menu and More” section alone, where most things cost $1 or $2. Expanded menus slow down service (especially at the drive-thru), but that hasn’t stopped many fast-food operators from trying to attract customers with more and more choices. The two most obvious examples are Starbucks, which has been adding tea and alcohol to menus left and right and broadly expanded its food selection and plans on doubling food sales in five years, and Pizza Hut, which simultaneously made its menu larger and more personalized to woo younger customers in particular. On a smaller scale, Wendy’s decided to add the highly successful Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger to the menu permanently, and virtually every national fast food establishment keeps on rolling out limited-time offer items regularly.

  • Shrinking Menus

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    Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Shrinking Menus
    While the pressure to expand menus still exists, McDonald’s in particular has come to realize that there are limits to how big a menu can get before it hurts the business. Items like the McWrap, which comes with two choices of chicken and three sauce options and cannot be prepared in advance, slow service to a halt—making it virtually impossible to McDonald’s goal of getting orders to customers in one minute or less. After yet another report of declining same-restaurant sales in early winter, McDonald’s decided it was finally time to cut the menu, which had grown to 121 items, a 75% increase in a decade. The fast food giant is now testing the removal of some Quarter Pounders and other sandwiches to make the menu more doable (and profitable) for the company. Casual sit-down dining chains including Chili’s and Red Lobster likewise decided in 2014 to trim back menus, which had metastasized and proven unwieldy and not particularly popular with customers.

  • Digital Ordering and Payments

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    Anatolii Babii / Alamy

    Burger King, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Dunking Donuts, and McDonald’s are among the fast-food operators that advanced the options to pay for purchases—and often, order before ever setting food in the restaurant—with a smartphone in 2014. When you think about, it especially makes sense for fast food players to be at the forefront of the mobile payment sphere: These businesses are based on the premise of satisfying cravings in a hurry, so of course they love the idea of customers being able to order with the tap of a phone, before really thinking through what it is they’re ordering. The advent of Apple Pay, accepted at McDonald’s, Subway, and Panera Bread, among others, is good for business too because customers don’t need to have cash or even a credit card on hand to get their fix of food.

  • Worker Strikes

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    Scott Olson/Getty

    Periodic walkouts by fast food workers around the U.S., combined with a big protest outside McDonald’s headquarters in Illinois in May, which led to hundreds of arrests, have brought various versions of the “Fight for $15″ (a campaign to boost all fast food employee wages to a minimum of $15 per hour) into the national spotlight in 2014. The movement appears to be growing, with walkouts in 150 cities in September, then reaching 190 cities during a planned strike in December. While it seems unlikely that the world’s biggest fast food companies will give in (and certainly not easily), they may not have a choice in some parts of the country: Seattle instituted a $15 minimum wage this year, and cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York are considering doing the same—moves that would affect not only fast food workers, but all low-wage employees.

TIME Labor

Convenience Store Employees Join Fast Food Workers in New Strikes

McDonald's Workers, Activists Protest McDonald's Labor Practices
Women hold banners during a protest for higher wages for fast food workers on March 18, 2014 in New York City. Andrew Burton--Getty Images

Protests expected to reach 190 cities

Fast food workers’ campaign for better pay continues to spread.

Workers in hundreds of cities once again walked off the job Thursday, organizing protests advocating for a $15 per hour living wage and the right to unionize.

Fast food workers have gone on similar strikes several times in the past two years, but this time they were joined by convenience store workers from retailers like Big Lots and Dollar Tree in some cities. Organizers said strikes and protests hit 190 cities in total.

The strikes, backed by the Service Employees International Union, began two years ago at a few fast food restaurants in New York and have been growing ever since. So far, fast-food chains themselves haven’t given higher wages to workers in any widespread manner, instead maintaining that they offer competitive pay and benefits.

But the political effect of the strikes seems to be growing. President Barack Obama has acknowledged fast food workers’ plight in his campaign to push the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and dozens of cities and states have boosted their minimum wages. Two cities, Seattle and San Francisco, have even pledged to raise their minimum wages all the way to $15.

TIME The Brief

#TheBrief: Why Even Red States Want a Higher Minimum Wage

The first minimum wage was $0.25. Today, that’s $4.22

San Francisco and Oakland voted Tuesday to increase their minimum wages, and so did four states that roundly backed Republicans. Rising standards of living and inflation may be what triggered this increase, but is paying workers more the one issue we can all agree on?

Watch #TheBrief to find out what’s driving the push to pay their workers more.

TIME faith

The Paradox of the Christian CEO

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PM Images—Getty Images

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of several books.

Would Jesus have approved of such gross income disparities?

The statistics are ridiculous. CEOs in the United States make roughly 300 times as much as the average worker, and 770 times that of the minimum-wage earner, according to data from national labor organization AFL-CIO. By any measure, that’s a problem. On top of that, average family income is worse than it was 15 years ago. That’s the first time that statistic has dropped since the Great Depression. Some of that has to do with the out-of-whack system by which CEOs are paid.

When it comes to executive compensation, people have rightly asked: How much is too much? But here’s a question that isn’t often asked: Does Jesus have anything to say about this?

Let me answer that not only as a Jesuit priest, but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business. Before entering the Jesuits, I was a finance major and worked for six years in corporate finance and human resources at General Electric. My approach to executive compensation, then, is from a financial and a human resources point of view–but also from a Catholic perspective.

The Catholic perspective on salaries, compensation and labor is, in general, the Christian perspective. And the basis for that is the Gospels. Everyone knows what Jesus asks of his followers: love your neighbor. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive someone 70 times 7 times. And care for the poor.

That last injunction is something Jesus asks us to do again and again. But it’s important to remember that Jesus not only asked us to care for the poor, he also was poor—or at least on the lower economic rungs in his time.

Jesus was born into a poor family in a backwater town. Only 200 to 400 people lived in Nazareth in his day, mainly families eking out a living through farming. Jesus worked as a carpenter, seen then as a low-class occupation ranking below the peasantry, since the carpenter did not have the benefit of a stable plot of land.

In his own lifetime, Jesus witnessed the disparities between rich and poor, and in his public ministry he constantly pointed his followers to care for the poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus says that the way we treat the poor and marginalized, whom he calls the “least” among us, will be the litmus test for entrance (or non-entrance) into heaven.

Where do these teachings come from? Most Christians would say they were divinely inspired—and they were. Jesus was fully divine. But there was some human experience at work too. The poor carpenter knew how the other half lived. In other words, Jesus would have seen the result of gross income disparities—even as a young man.

An hour-and-a-half walk from Nazareth, for example, was a booming town called Sepphoris, then being rebuilt by King Herod. Archaeological research reveals a town of 30,000 people with an amphitheater that seated 3,000 people–as well as courts, a royal bank and houses with frescoes and mosaics. In terms of affluence, it was worlds away from Nazareth.

Most likely, a poor carpenter would have made the short walk to Sepphoris many times to find employment. In Sepphoris, Jesus would have seen how the wealthy lived, and may even have helped to build some expensive houses. As he carried his tools back to Nazareth, he would likely have pondered these differences in living conditions.

Such human experiences influenced his teachings, which often focus on work, workers, fair wages–and disparities between the rich and the poor. One of Jesus’s parables, in fact, conveys a palpable disgust with gross income disparities: “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), in which a rich man passes by a poor one every day on his doorstep, and refuses to help. At the end of the story, both men die. You can guess who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

This, then, is the Christian perspective.

Beyond this, Catholic social teaching has much to say about economic conditions. These teachings build on the Gospels and, as embodied in the papal encyclicals, enjoy a high level of authority in the church.

Catholic social teaching focuses more on minimum wages than on the upper end of the pay scale. There is, as far as I know, nothing explicit about CEO pay in the major Catholic social teaching documents, that is, about maximum wages. Nonetheless, one can extend the logic to address what you could call “excessive maximum wages,” which effectively make it more difficult to provide a decent minimum wage for the lower wage workers.

In other words, the dollar placed into the pocket of the CEO comes out of everyone else’s pockets. Money in even successful corporations is finite. A corporation makes a certain amount of profit per year. When deciding on CEO salaries and benefits, corporate boards are, in essence, allocating dollars among individuals.

Fairness, equity and solidarity are constant themes in Catholic social teaching, particularly in Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. The recently beatified Pope Paul decried the situation where misery and luxury rub shoulders, suggesting great discomfort with the extremes of the rich and poor. Other encyclicals repeat the church’s opposition to great levels of disparity in income.

In fact, some Catholic theologians today posit not just a “minimum wage,” but “maximum wages.” Needless to say, that may not be a popular idea among any executives already opposed to raising minimum wages.

Over and above this is the question of need, how much does a CEO need—or, for that matter, any of the super rich?

The question I would ask Christian CEOs is blunt: What do you want to say to Jesus when you reach the gates of heaven? That you took as much as you could, or as much as the market would bear, because the board okay’d it? Or that you accepted what you thought was just, and understood the needs of your fellow men and women, who may have worked even harder than you?

And if you don’t like hearing those questions from me, just imagine hearing them from Jesus.

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. A version of this article originally appeared at America magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Television

Bill Murray Loved Working at Little Caesars

Back in the day, he worked alongside celebrity chef Kerry Simon

Actor Bill Murray came from humble beginnings — and so did his friend, celebrity chef Kerry Simon. They both worked at a Little Caesars pizza shop in Illinois, Murray said during a visit to Jimmy Kimmel Live on Tuesday. It was the best job he ever had, Murray admitted, although it’s hard to see how anything could top Ghostbusters.

TIME Money

Why Raising Minimum Wage Means Less Money in Your Pocket

Cash in pocket
Getty Images

$15 per hour looks more like a way to shrink the government than an effective strategy to improve the financial position of low-income workers

Will you actually be richer when your pay is raised to $15 per hour?

Perhaps the question seems ludicrous. Of course you’re better off making $15 an hour than you were at $9 per hour, right? But the answer is, unfortunately, not as obvious as you might think. And the question itself—will workers getting a raise be better off?—has been missing from debates in cities from New York to Los Angeles over whether to establish $15 per hour minimum wages for some workers.

Instead, we’re seeing the same old arguments — from San Francisco, where voters must decide on a November ballot measure proposing a new $15 per hour wage floor, to Seattle, which will begin phasing in $15 per hour next year — over whether the minimum wage hurts business and jobs, or whether it boosts local economies by giving workers more money to spend. For the record, I think a higher minimum wage makes sense; $15 per hour isn’t much anymore in our most expensive major cities. But I’m troubled by our failure to consider the real-world impact of minimum-wage hikes on those who are supposed to benefit directly—the workers getting them.

It’s a hard question because of a hard fact. Many workers who get a boost in pay will see their gains offset by a reduction in the government assistance they are currently receiving.

Why? Eligibility for many public programs—and the amount of support people receive—is need-based. Whether we’re talking about tax credits, healthcare subsidies, affordable housing subsidies, or food stamps, those with lower incomes tend to get more in benefits. So a boost in your income means a corresponding reduction in benefits.

It is hard to generalize and measure the “cost” of someone’s raise to $15 per hour because each person’s situation is different. Program eligibility depends not only on incomes but also on factors such as whether you have children, the number of people you live with, where you live, and other household members’ income. (Having to do the complicated math around such benefits is another burden of being poor in this country.) But for the most part, the working poor face what can be thought of as high marginal taxes (north of 60 percent, in many cases) on every additional dollar they earn. For example, a recent Congressional Budget Office report found that a single parent with one child who makes between $5,000 and $20,000 a year gets only $15 of every additional $100 he makes.

Taken together, the income rules for various programs create cliffs that a big raise can push you off. (Such cliffs are also sometimes called “welfare traps,” and economists argue about whether they discourage work.) Eligibility for food stamps is based on two different tests to demonstrate that your household has a low income. For Section 8 housing, your household income cannot surpass 50 percent of your area’s median income. And the earned income tax credit, one of the most important sources of cash for low-income working families, phases out as income rises.

The Affordable Care Act demonstrates the phenomenon. This landmark piece of social legislation extended free or highly subsidized health insurance to millions of additional Americans. But it also, therefore, increases the loss of benefits to low-income workers after a raise. Take a single person in California making $10 per hour (or $20,000 a year) who gets a raise to $15 ($30,000 a year). According to Micah Weinberg, a healthcare policy advisor with the Bay Area Council, her health insurance premium under Obamacare would be capped at 5.1 percent of her income at $20,000—$1,021. But at her new income of $30,000 a year, the premium would be capped at 8.4 percent—or $2,511. So a higher minimum wage buys her a premium hike of $1,500 a year. And that doesn’t account for cost-sharing subsidies that are also tied to income, financial assistance that is lost entirely at $15 per hour.

Given this context, you might ask: What are leaders who campaign for higher minimum wages—from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is working on a hike with his city council, to President Obama—doing to make sure that low-income workers don’t pay all these new costs of a higher minimum wage? Just about nothing.

Some advocates of a higher minimum wage, like the conservative Ron Unz, who sponsored an ill-fated minimum wage initiative in California, have made the case that by forcing businesses to pay people more, the government will save money on public programs. In this light, $15 per hour looks more like a way to shrink the government than an effective strategy to improve the financial position of low-income workers.

What to do? For their part, low-wage workers would be rational economic actors if they embraced the increase in the minimum wage by reducing their hours. That way, their incomes won’t go up enough to threaten benefits, and the wage increase could offer the benefit of more time—to spend with parents and kids, to enhance education, or to rest and get healthier. But it’s not easy to say no to more pay, even if it doesn’t leave you better off.

The better path would for our political leaders to go beyond popular public appeals for a higher minimum wage—and instead recalibrate and expand social programs so that low-wage workers get the full benefit of their raises. (Warren Buffett has suggested just such a course, via an expansion of the earned income tax credit). Of course, doing this would require two things that are in short supply: thoughtful political action and money.

But if American cities are going to raise the minimum wage, their goal should be to put more money in people’s pockets—and not just enact a policy that makes us feel good about ourselves.

Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME 2014 midterm elections

Drugs, Minimum Wage and Gambling: Inside 2014’s $1 Billion-Plus Ballot Initiatives

Demand for marijuana edibles is pushing several Colorado manufacturers to expand their facilities or move to larger quarters.
Steve Herin, Master Grower at Incredibles, works on repotting marijuana plants in the grow facility on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. Kent Nishimura—Denver Post via Getty Images

Bored with the midterms? There’s a lot of (expensive) drama on the ballot that doesn’t involve candidates

The 2014 elections are shaping up to be the most expensive in history, not for electoral campaigns, but for ballot initiatives. More than $1 billion has already been spent on them, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics. And all that money could swing some key races.

Studies have shown controversial ballot initiatives can boost turnout as much as 8% in midterm elections, which typically see lower turnout than polling during presidential elections. Since Oregon first kicked off ballot initiatives in the early 1900’s, the practice has grown steadily — that is, until this year. Despite the increase in spending, 2014 actually has the least number of total initiatives — only 155 in 41 states, down from 188 in 2012—since 1988, reflecting state efforts to limit legislating by ballot.

Some of the millions already spent were intended to keep certain measures off the ballot. In Alaska, for example, oil and gas companies spent $170 per voter to block a bid to raise oil and gas taxes. In Colorado, energy companies also spent millions to keep fracking initiatives off the ticket. Also not making the cut this year: gay marriage and a push to break California into six states that, while strange, gained a lot of attention early on.

Perhaps the main issue on ballots nationwide this cycle is marijuana. Two states — Oregon and Alaska — plus the District of Columbia have initiatives to follow Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s a push to make Florida the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana that could impact an electoral race. Former Democratic Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s bid to get his old gubernatorial seat back could see a boost from the measure, as left-leaning voters tend to support marijuana reform. Crist allies have already spent $4 million on the initiative with opponents, including incumbent Florida Gov. Republican Rick Scott and Sheldon Adelson, spending $2.5 million to defeat it thus far.

Another big issue is minimum wage, with four red states—Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota—considering raising the minimum wage. Since 2002, all 10 ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages have passed, and polling shows these initiatives look like they have good shots at approval as well. The pushes could help embattled Democratic incumbent Senators Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, another Democratic incumbent fighting to keep his seat, is hoping that a personhood amendment —which defines life as beginning from the moment of conception — will help him stick around. His opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, also opposes the amendment, but has voiced support for personhood initiatives in the past, creating an opening Udall has been exploiting. North Dakota has a similar initiative on the ballot, and Tennessee has a measure that would allow the state legislature to amend the state constitution to strip out abortion rights.

However, some of the most expensive ballot issues are not national ones. In California, two initiatives — one to increase the limit of non-economic malpractice damages from $250,000 to $1.1 million and another requiring state approval of changes in insurance rates — could see as much as $100 million in combined spending to sway voters. And Oregon and Colorado have controversial initiatives mandating the labeling of certain foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Last year, companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Monsanto spent $22 million defeating a similar push in Washington where proponents spent $9 million trying to pass it.

Oregon also has a controversial immigration initiative that would uphold a law allowing four-year driver’s licenses for those who cannot prove legal presence in the U.S. Another big-spending item is a spate of gambling initiatives in seven states expected to draw more than $100 million, including a hard-fought initiative in Massachusetts that would repeal a 2011 law allowing gambling resorts that would halt construction on sites.

A gun rights conundrum could happen in Washington, which looks poised to pass two initiatives that countermand one another. One would require universal background checks for all guns, and another forbids more extensive background checks than those required at the federal level. Officials say such a situation has never happened before, and no one is sure what would happen if both pass. Also on guns, Alabama is also looking to become the third state after Louisiana and Missouri to pass a “fundamental right to bear arms,” making it harder to restrict firearm access.

Alabama is also seeking to become the eighth state to forbid state’s recognition of laws violating its policies, including all foreign law. This measure is a follow up to a bill introduced by state Sen. Gerald Allen last year that specifically references Sharia law.

Missouri and Connecticut are looking to joining 33 other states and the District of Columbia in early voting.

And, finally, Maine is looking to ban bear baiting, trapping or the use of dogs to hunt bears. Long live Smokey.

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