In Oregon, Critics See A Good Idea Gone Bad
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 1998; Page A01
SALEM, Ore.For many Oregonians, the biennial battle of initiatives has become a battle over the initiative process itself a fierce debate about whether direct legislation by the people is still the populist tool its creators claimed in 1902 or a new and expensive weapon for well-financed interest groups.
The cascade of initiative measures in recent years has brought a torrent of criticism from civic leaders who say a good idea has run amok.
"The more you substitute a plebiscite for the checks and balances of the legislative process, the more you run afoul of the fundamental idea of our Constitution," University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer says.
Oregon was the third state to let voters try to write laws themselves, following South Dakota and Utah. And the initiative has become a powerful factor in state government, not just here but elsewhere.
California voters in June used the initiative to end bilingual education, as they had voted earlier to shut down affirmative action programs and curb benefits to illegal aliens. Looming ahead in November are battles on expansion of Indian casino gambling in California, affirmative action in Washington state, physician-assisted suicide in Michigan, tax caps in Nebraska, the medical use of marijuana in the District of Columbia and many more. Collecting signatures to qualify ballot initiatives has become a multimillion-dollar industry, and the ad battles over these issues are as intensive and expensive as any candidate campaign.
In the last two elections, Oregon voters have placed 32 constitutional amendments and laws on the ballot and passed 12 of them. Last month, Secretary of State Phil Keisling certified 10 more for November. Sponsors reported spending more than $2 million to collect signatures on November ballot issues ranging from marijuana regulation to mandatory jail terms and from union political dues checkoffs to adoptees' birth records.
Critics, such as Frohnmayer, a former Republican state attorney general, say whatever its usefulness as an outlet for frustration, the initiative process is fundamentally at odds with the republican form of government created by the Constitution.
Initiatives that limit taxes without cutting spending or that mandate spending without providing revenue "usurp the role of the legislature and governor in managing the ledger of state government," Frohnmayer says. "It especially diminishes the role of the legislature as the central instrument of government. And that is bad for democracy."
Last month, the state Supreme Court invalidated a voter-approved anti-crime initiative and set new rules that could make it much harder to amend the Oregon constitution. At the same time, the Oregon Employment Division continued its effort to force firms that employ signature gatherers to pay more taxes and benefits a policy some say will cripple the whole process.
A Portland lawyer filed suit challenging the state's requirement that petition passers be registered voters. And Lloyd Marbet, of the Coalition for Initiative Rights, says he expects the legislature, which regularly grumbles about the voters taking over its work, "will really go after us."
Not even the severest critics of the initiative in this state want to abolish it. But their criticisms of the process are winning attention, and with half the states now using "the Oregon plan," as the initiative was known earlier in this century, the debate that has developed here is echoed across the country.
The people promoting the November initiatives here have no doubts. Helen Hill of Nehalem, a 42-year-old teacher, thinks Oregon law sealing birth certificates "only engenders shame" among adoptees like herself, who are denied knowledge of their parentage. "People have tried dozens of times" since the legislature closed the birth records in 1957 to have them reopened "and the bills never even make it out of committee," she says. With a personal loan of $89,500, she hired a Portland signature-gathering firm and got her initiative on the ballot. "I thank God we have this initiative process," she says.
Rick Bayer is another citizen frustrated by the legislature. The Lake Oswego physician is an advocate of allowing patients with medical prescriptions to use marijuana to ease their suffering. Treating patients with cancer, AIDS or multiple sclerosis, he says, "I share their indignation at being called criminals for using a God-given, natural herb." A California group financed by multimillionaire George Soros spent $140,500 to qualify the measure.
Geoff Pampush, who runs an organization to protect rivers and parks called Oregon Trout, says the legislature has been so stingy with money for environmental causes that "Oregon is on the verge of becoming New Jersey with rain." Oregon Trout hired the same California-based signature-gathering firm as Bayer to qualify an initiative for a constitutional amendment that will allocate $45 million a year from the Oregon lottery to parks and streams. They spent $244,781, helped by big gifts from the Nature Conservancy and Nike chairman Phil Knight.
A separate set of environmentalists is pushing a measure to ban clear-cutting and many other timber harvest practices. Qualifying that one cost $235,987.
Bill Sizemore, spokesman for Oregon Taxpayers United, has run a number of successful initiative campaigns, including a 1996 measure that cut and capped property taxes. Because his previous efforts were opposed by teachers and other state employee unions, Sizemore this year is promoting an initiative that would end payroll deductions for union political dues for their members a cousin to the one that failed after a fierce campaign in California in June.
In addition to sponsoring initiatives, Sizemore runs a company that collects petition signatures. He used the renown he gained from his initiative campaigns to win a three-way fight in the May primary for the Republican nomination for governor, although polls show him trailing Gov. John Kitzhaber (D).
Tired of fighting defensive wars against Sizemore, the Oregon public employees union has qualified two countermeasures. One is a campaign finance initiative that would lock into the constitution the right to a union dues checkoff. The other would make it harder to establish supermajority requirements for additional state taxes or spending. Sizemore reported spending $169,000 on his initiative; the unions said they spent $633,000 on their two.
While Sizemore is an ardent defender of the initiative process, Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME, the 18,000-member state employees union, complains, "This is the third straight election we have had to spend a fortune fighting Sizemore. People vote on the basis of 30-second ads, not reflection. It is not a good system."
Sizemore is not alone in making full-time use of the initiative. Kevin Mannix of Salem, a former legislator, has another in a series of anti-crime initiatives on the ballot all qualified with paid signature gatherers. After successfully stiffening sentences for violent crimes and other felonies, Mannix now is trying to do the same thing for various property crimes. Loren Parks, a millionaire businessman, provided $85,000 to help qualify that initiative, as he had done with the others.
It was one of Mannix's earlier initiatives that was invalidated last month by the state Supreme Court. The ruling on the victims' rights initiative marked the fifth time in the past three years the court has overturned voter-approved initiatives. The decision that this one was invalid because it affected more than one section of the constitution creates a potential threat to many other past and pending measures.
Despite that setback, Mannix believes fervently in the initiative process. "If you have a heartfelt issue that can engender a lot of public support, it can't be hacked to death by special interests the way it can in the legislature," he says.
And then there is the League of Women Voters' initiative to conduct all elections by mail. Keisling, the secretary of state, is the nation's most ardent advocate of vote-by-mail and has used it, as the law allows, in special elections. He enlisted the league in his effort to expand it to all elections. But as a critic of the use of paid signature gatherers, he also wanted to show that volunteers could collect the 73,261 valid signatures needed for a statutory initiative.
The league sent out hundreds of petitions to its members, but few came back. Facing failure, it hired a professional campaign organizer not one of the signature-gathering firms, league president Paula Krane emphasizes to do the job with volunteers. In the end, it cost just less than $100,000 still an expensive proposition.
Keisling thinks the 1996 ballot, which included 16 voter initiatives, six others referred by the legislature and one referendum, was too much of a good thing. The voters' pamphlet, containing paid advertisements from backers and opponents of these measures, ran 248 pages. "It was almost as long as 'War and Peace,'" Keisling remarks, "but with less of a discernible plot."
Keisling sponsored legislation last year to raise the signature requirement for initiatives that would change the constitution, but his measure like all the 80 other bills that would have restricted the process failed to become law. He also has been critical of the "bounty system," in which petition passers are paid per signature.
The City Club of Portland and the League of Women Voters also have called for changes, including legislative hearings and constitutionality rulings on initiatives before they reach the ballot.
But Keisling is not as big a bogeyman to the initiative backers as the State Employment Division. It has been hauling signature-gathering firms into court for failure to pay Social Security and unemployment insurance taxes for the people collecting signatures in shopping centers. The companies have failed to convince the state these workers are independent contractors, not employees, and are protesting their fines in the court of appeals. But for now the ruling is in effect and the costs of signature gathering have gone up.
For Marbet and other initiative supporters, it is all part of an effort by the establishment forces in Salem to cut the people out of the governing process.
Marbet is a self-described "hippie" who has been fighting public utilities and power companies over nuclear plants and rate issues. He argues that "business interests control the legislature, lock, stock and barrel."
Joining him in the left-right Coalition for Initiative Rights is Lon Mabon, a conservative Christian activist who heads the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). For the last decade, his group has been promoting initiatives to ban abortion and block ordinances guaranteeing rights for homosexuals. This year, OCA failed to qualify either its antiabortion measure or one writing the definition of the traditional family into the state constitution a failure Mabon blames in part on the tougher regulations on signature gathering.
Mabon says the initiative process "is a safety valve. Powerful groups have great influence in our legislature. 'Good old boy' clubs develop and the average citizen feels left out. With the initiative, if you've got a gripe, you can get access. You don't have to take up arms."
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