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Thursday December 2nd, 2021 8:28PM

Voters back rights for elderly visits, eating and clean air

By The Associated Press
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New rights to gather in worship and visit loved ones in nursing homes won overwhelming approval in Texas as voters pushed back against pandemic restrictions enacted by some officials to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Texas measures were among several passed Tuesday in states creating new constitutional rights. Maine voters approved the nation's first right for individuals to grow and eat food of their choosing. In New York, voters backed a right to clean air and water but rejected an expansion of voting rights.

Some ballot measures dealing with money also lost. An attempt to expand college sports betting failed in New Jersey while a proposal to raise taxes on marijuana products was losing in Colorado.

One of the Texas amendments will prohibit governments from issuing orders that limit religious services. It’s a backlash to public health orders in some large cities and counties that restricted the number of people who could gather indoors at the onset of the pandemic.

Another Texas amendment will create a right for residents in nursing homes and other group-living facilities to designate an “essential caregiver,” who can continue to visit even if the general public is barred from the facility. Like counterparts elsewhere, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had barred nursing homes from admitting visitors as COVID-19 cases surged in facilities last year. The goal was to save lives, though it also prevented the elderly from connecting with family and friends.

Both Texas measures fortify similar laws enacted earlier this year. The nursing home amendment passed with 87% support and the religious services amendment with 62%.

“A message was sent this election,” Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock said Wednesday. "The public overwhelmingly does not want an elected official to institute such restrictions as we saw instituted during this last pandemic ever again.”

In New York, voters defeated an attempt to make relaxed pandemic voting laws the new norm. Last year, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a temporary law allowing anyone to vote absentee rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus at polling sites. Voters rejected a measure that would have effectively made that permanent by repealing a constitutional provision limiting absentee voting only to those who are ill, physically disabled or out of town on Election Day.

Voters also declined to repeal a constitutional requirement that voters register at least 10 days before an election. Another failed amendment would have changed New York's process for redrawing voting districts for U.S. House and state legislative chambers by making it easier for the Democratic-led Legislature to pass new maps.

In Colorado, voters were reluctant to push back against certain pandemic powers. Though some ballots remained to be counted Wednesday, voters appeared to defeat a constitutional amendment requiring legislative approval for the state to spend money received from outside sources, such as the federal government. A conservative group sponsored the initiative after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis used his executive powers to distribute nearly $1.7 billion of federal COVID-19 aid in May 2020.

Voters also were opposing a Colorado measure to raise the sales tax on marijuana to fund out-of-school programs, such as tutoring, technical skill training, mental health counseling and enrichment programs in the arts. A separate measure to reduce property taxes also was trailing.

The mixed ideological results — opposition to both higher taxes and lower taxes — may stem partly from "somewhat arcane" ballot wording, said political scientist Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

“When voters get confused -- either because they don’t understand what a measure would do or because it seems contradictory with other things that are on the ballot -- sometimes the easiest thing to do is to just vote no,” Masket said.

In New Jersey, voters defeated a proposal to expand sports betting to include college games that take place in the state or involve New Jersey colleges. Although the state has been a pioneer in sports wagering, local collegiate games have been off-limits.

In Maine, the right to food passed comfortably. It declares individuals have an “unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing.” Legislative sponsors said they were pushing back against corporatization that threatens local ownership of the food supply. Opponents expressed concerns that people would try to raise cattle in cities.

“It’s always a good idea to secure and protect an individual right in the world we live in. Food is life,” said Democratic state Sen. Craig Hickman, a supporter of the proposal.

New York voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing a right to “clean air and water” and “a healthful environment.” It marks a resurgence of an environmental movement dating to 1970, when Illinois adopted the first constitutional duty to maintain “a healthful environment.” A Pennsylvania amendment approved the next year provided a specific right to “clean air” and “pure water.” Other states with environmental rights in their constitutions include Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana and Rhode Island.

___

David A. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine.

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