A recent Portland City Club report that calls for overhauling Oregon's initiative and referendum system has, predictably, created a maelstrom of comments from both friends and foes of the current way of doing things. Those who think the system is just fine the way it is accuse "special interests" of trying to sabotage the system. Many who agree with the report want wholesale changes immediately. Surely there must be some reasonable middle ground.
Few can argue that Oregon's initiative and referendum system is nothing like Oregon's founding fathers had in mind. Right or wrong, things have changed. True "grassroots" initiative campaigns are few and far between. People like Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix have created cottage industries out of placing initiatives on the ballot. While their supporters are among the first to decry that "special interests" want to emasculate the current system, it's an ironic fact that Sizemore — in particular — has become a virtual special interest unto himself.
It is true that our organization — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — has long voiced concern about abuses within the current system. Given the high number of initiatives that Sizemore has aimed directly at public employees, can you blame us? Yet we have never called for abolishing Oregon's revered initiative system. We do believe the system has warranted occasional tweaks over time.
Case in point: In the mid- to late-1990s, it became apparent that the entire signature gathering system was running amok. Initiatives had become such big business that those in the signature-gathering field were tempted to cheat. So we played a major role in two bills that reformed — not eliminated — the process. As a result, current Oregon law says you must pay signature gatherers by the hour, rather than on a per signature — or "bounty"— basis. We were also key backers of HB 3053 in the 1999 Oregon Legislature that brought a scientifically valid formula to the method by which signatures are verified. And in 2007, we helped champion HB 2082, which simply requires chief petitioners to register the signature gatherers they are paying. All of these laws are reasonable checks and balances to ensure that the "John Hancock" on initiative petition sheets indeed belong to John Hancock.
The Portland City Club report is 76 pages long. We don't agree with every word or every recommendation. But we do believe the report should be required reading for the 2009 Oregon Legislature. It is completely reasonable for that body to review the current system and debate if and where fixes are needed.
We'd also like to add one idea to the mix that's not included in the City Club report. In Nevada, there is a process for that state's Supreme Court to review potentially unconstitutional initiatives before they're placed before voters. This is an option Oregon should strongly consider. How many times have we seen divisive campaigns over initiatives here that end up in court, only to be ultimately thrown out as unconstitutional? Where is the down side in determining the question of constitutionality before people on either side of an issue invest time, money and energy either supporting or fighting a measure? It doesn't matter what your political persuasion is — liberal, conservative, moderate or otherwise — you feel "cheated" if your cause passes a vote of the people only to be struck down after the fact by a court. There's much to be gained and little to be lost by moving judicial review to the front end of the process.
Joe Baessler is a Political Coordinator for Oregon American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.