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Oregon voters may be asked to do something next year that the Legislature and governor aren’t inclined to do: tilt the state to the political right.
With the Legislature in Democratic control and fellow Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski ready to sign its bills, conservatives are turning to the initiative system as an outlet for their goals of reducing government, curbing union clout and advancing their ideas on how the legal system should treat gays, illegal immigrants and women seeking abortions.
“We see no chance of any conservative, limited-government laws being enacted, which makes the initiative process the only venue in which we have a chance of winning a few fights,” longtime initiative promoter Bill Sizemore said.
Of the 31 initiative petitions approved for signature-gathering, 23 involve conservative causes or advocates — chiefly Sizemore, Kevin Mannix, Russ Walker and Lon Mabon.
Similarly, more than two-thirds of the 95 initiatives in contention for the 2008 ballot are of a conservative bent.
In the mix are proposals to:
Ban teaching students in any language but English for more than two years.
Allow state and local governments to restrict strip clubs.
Limit what lawyers can charge in civil cases.
Eliminate the current statewide system for land use planning.
Many of the ideas being pursued as possible initiatives for 2008 have gone to voters before. Sizemore is pushing several proposals that echo earlier, unsuccessful measures. One proposes to cut state income taxes. Another would restrict payroll deduction for union dues. A third would replace seniority-based pay for teachers with merit-based pay.
Mabon, former head of the religious-right group the Oregon Citizens Alliance, is promoting an anti-gay rights measure that’s nearly identical to the OCA’s unsuccessful Measure 9 in 1992.
And as in the past, measures also have been proposed to outlaw or restrict abortion rights.
Just as such ideas perennially have been proposed for, or appeared on, the Oregon ballot, so, too, have initiatives from the political left.
But so far, the 2008 ballot is being pursued far less by liberal groups. At this stage in the 2008 election cycle, the union-backed Our Oregon Coalition had signed on for 39 proposed initiatives; it currently has none, although it is part of a coalition working on an initiative to curb mortgage-lending abuses.
Kevin Looper, the organization’s executive director, said that the ascension of Democrats to control of state government is behind the down-shift in ballot-measure advocacy on the political left.
With lawmakers and a governor who last session acted on his and other groups’ pro-labor, consumer-protection and pro-environment agendas, such proposals will continue to be put forward in the form of legislation, rather than initiatives, Looper said.
“Most of the organizations on the progressive side have been part of the process of moving the state forward and the change in legislative leadership that’s come with that,” he said.
Looper said the measures coming from the political right can be viewed a couple of ways. From a tactical point of view, Looper said he thinks they’re meant to keep bringing money in and maintain political careers of activists and potential future candidates.
He said that was the case for Sizemore and Mannix.
He said taken together, the proposed initiatives seem to reflect dissatisfaction with the way the Legislature and the governor are running the state.
“On the other side are a bunch of people who are disgruntled with those changes, don’t agree with those changes and are trying to advance a narrow, ideological agenda,” Looper said.
Those behind some of the proposed measures say it’s a mistake to write them off as ideology-driven and out of step with Oregon’s blue-tinged political mood.
Mannix, a past Republican candidate for governor and the force behind mandatory sentencing law Measure 11, said his 2008 initiatives probably will find favor with most voters — and not just those of a conservative mind set. He cited as an example his proposed initiative that would set mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, burglars and thieves — which would cost up to $200 million a year in increased prison costs.
“I see a tough stand on crime as being more populist than conservative,” he said. “I do think it fits the mold of the voters.”
Russ Walker, vice chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, said he hoped 2008 would be a good year for conservative initiatives — regardless if it turns out to be a good time for conservative candidates.
Walker, who also runs the national limited-government group FreedomWorks, is a sponsor of six initiatives in play for 2008.
He said polling and focus-group research suggests those ideas — cutting taxes, requiring merit pay for teachers, tort reform and limiting non-English instruction in classrooms — could pass at the ballot box.
“All of the initiatives we’re moving right now, at least today, voters in Oregon think they’re good policy ideas,” he said. “But that changes. It can flip-flop.”