Activists propose altering state

Political activists have filed more than 140 proposed ballot initiatives for the Nov. 7 election with the secretary of state, signaling another year of contentious political battles over issues that divide Oregon.

The proposed measures involve abortion, taxes and spending, property rights, forest management and payday lenders. Others would change the state’s political and judicial systems and expand health care access and casino gambling.

At this stage, only 14 proposals have made their way through a cumbersome process and been approved to be circulated for voter signatures.

The record number of initiatives proposed to the secretary of state’s office was 183 in 2002. Of those, 37 were approved for voter signatures and 18 made it to the ballot.

Ballot measures that would amend the state constitution require 100,840 valid voter signatures to make the November ballot; measures that would change state law require 75,630 signatures. The deadline for submitting signatures is July 7.

Several are already “on the street” for signature collection, and that number is certain to grow as the process grinds on.

Conservatives already busy

Conservative groups have gotten a head start in the early skirmishing over ballot measures.

Russ Walker, Oregon director of FreedomWorks, a national conservative organization, said his group is gathering signatures for two measures. One, which has been rejected by voters in the past, would require that state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges be elected by district rather than statewide, as they now are.

Walker argued that most higher court Oregon judges are initially appointed from the Portland area or Eugene before they have to stand for election as incumbents.

“We want to have representation in the judiciary from all over Oregon,” he said.

The other initiative would allow Oregon taxpayers to claim the same deduction for personal exemptions on their state income tax return as they do on their federal return. Currently, each personal exemption reduces federal taxable income by $3,200; the exemption for state income tax purposes is $154 each.

Patty Wentz, a spokeswoman for Our Oregon, a coalition of liberal groups, said the tax measure would cost the state $835 million a year in revenue and will be opposed by her organization if it makes the ballot.

Walker said FreedomWorks will also support two other conservative groups, the Taxpayers Association of Oregon and Oregonians in Action, in their efforts to limit state spending and curtail government power over private property.

Jason Williams, executive director of the taxpayers association, said his group has not decided which of several spending limits proposals it has filed will be the one it pushes to get on the ballot. He said the objective was to limit growth in state spending based on a formula using population growth and inflation during the previous two-year budget cycle, and to create a “default rainy day fund” by requiring that revenues that exceed the limit be held in reserve.

Proposals address concerns

Oregonians in Action was the prime sponsor of Measure 37, the 2004 ballot initiative that would have required governments to waive land-use regulations or compensate landowners whose property values were reduced by the regulations.

This year the group is gathering signatures for another initiative in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld the right of New London, Conn., to use its power of eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to a developer as part of an economic development plan to expand the city’s tax base.

The 2006 initiative would prohibit the use of eminent domain for such purposes in Oregon.

Dave Hunnicutt, president of the property rights organization, said his group has also filed several proposed initiatives dealing with Measure 37, but is not moving on those until the Oregon Supreme Court rules on a lower court decision that struck down Measure 37 as unconstitutional.

Wentz said she expected left-leaning organizations to be equally aggressive in promoting initiatives and fighting many of those being pushed by conservatives. One measure that has been cleared for voter signatures would require the Legislature, when enacting a tax cut, to pass spending cuts during the same session to make up for the anticipated revenue shortfall.

“The mythology is we’ll just find the money somewhere,” Wentz said. “This has an impact on people’s lives, and (lawmakers) have to be accountable for that.”

Wentz also said other “top tier” initiative proposals for Our Oregon include measures that would cap interest rates on payday loans, reduce the commission paid to video lottery retailers to 18 percent, increase the corporate minimum tax and require corporations to provide information on the taxes they pay to a publicly accessible state database.

Two other proposals that have been certified for circulation and are being pushed by their sponsors would have a profound effect on Oregon’s election system. One, sponsored by former secretaries of state Phil Keisling, a Democrat, and Norma Paulus, a Republican, would establish an “open primary” system in which all voters could vote in primaries, with the top two vote-getters for each office, regardless of party affiliation, advancing to the November general election.

The number of 2006 ballot measures that come before voters in November is certain to be far less than the 142 proposals on file in Secretary of State Bill Bradbury’s office. That is because, in a process known as “ballot title shopping,” interest groups frequent file multiple versions of the same proposal as they calculate which one is likely to draw the most support. Oregonians in Action, for example, filed 11 proposed initiatives with such colorful titles as the “Government Can’t Steal My Property Act” on the eminent domain issue before settling on the one it is now promoting.

Edward Walsh: 503-294-4153;