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LGBT Rights, Pot And Medicaid On The Line In State And Local Races

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Chloe Angyal

The governor's race in Kentucky and a school-funding battle in Mississippi are among the top races Tuesday in what otherwise is a relatively low-key, off-year election cycle.

Just two states are holding elections for governor while three have general state legislative elections. Yet decisions made by voters in several cities and states could be an important bellwether of sentiment ahead of next year's presidential elections.

In Virginia, a swing state, Democrats are pushing to reverse a narrow Republican majority in the state Senate and empower Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in negotiations with Republicans who control the state House.

Houston and Philadelphia are among cities selecting mayors, while Salt Lake City voters will choose between the incumbent and a challenger who seeks to become the first gay person elected mayor of Utah's capital.

Several city or state ballot initiatives will test voter preferences on school funding, marijuana, gay and lesbian rights, and the sharing economy.

Closely watched is the battle for Kentucky's open gubernatorial seat, which features a two-term Democratic attorney general who vows to maintain the state's Medicaid expansion and a Republican businessman looking to upend the political dynamic in a Southern state where Democrats still control statewide offices.

Republican Matt Bevin has been running as an outsider, wooing the state's conservative voters with a message of "vote your values and not your party." Democrat Jack Conway has been emphasizing his support for early education programs while saying that 400,000 people could lose taxpayer-funded health insurance if Bevin is elected. Also on the ballot is Drew Curtis, a businessman running as an independent.

The governor's race in Mississippi has been largely overshadowed by a fight over a constitutional amendment that would allow people to sue the state to increase funding for public schools. Critics say it would take budget decisions away from Mississippi lawmakers and give the courts too much power. The Legislature has put forward its own ballot measure that would prohibit "judicial enforcement" of school funding.

The outcome could prompt similar efforts in other states where education remains a key challenge for lawmakers as they look to balance their budgets with tax revenues that have yet to rebound to pre-recession levels.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, appears on track for re-election. He faces political newcomer Robert Gray, a long-haul trucker who was the surprise winner of the Democratic primary.

In Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, efforts to secure non-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people will face a key test. Now that same-sex marriage is legal, such laws have become a priority for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups. Opponents, including a coalition of conservative pastors, contend the measure infringes on their religious beliefs.

Houston voters also will chose from among 13 candidates to replace outgoing Mayor Annise Parker. In Philadelphia, Democrat Jim Kenney, a former city councilman, is considered the favorite to succeed Mayor Michael Nutter.

The Salt Lake City mayoral race features two-term incumbent Ralph Becker, one of Obama's appointees on a climate change task force, and former state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski. If Biskupski wins, she will be the city's first openly gay mayor.

Elsewhere, voters in Ohio will consider whether to allow the use of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use. San Francisco voters will decide a citizen-backed initiative to restrict the operations of Airbnb, the room-rental site, and a $310 million bond package for affordable housing.

In Washington state, a proposal backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen would add state penalties for anyone who imports certain animal products for commercial purposes, such as elephant ivory or rhino horns.

And Colorado voters will decide what to do with $66 million in tax revenue generated from the sale of recreational marijuana. An existing state law requires excess tax revenue to be returned to taxpayers. A statewide initiative on Tuesday's ballot asks voters to make an exception with the marijuana revenue and direct it instead toward public education and drug-prevention programs.

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