Ballot measures take shape for ’08

Oregonians will have plenty to consider when they get their November 2008 ballot in the mail, from who should be the country’s next president to whether U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith deserves a third term in office.

But that’s not all: Judging from early signature-gathering efforts that are quietly taking place around the state, there will be no shortage of ballot measures, most of them sponsored by a coterie of familiar conservative activists.

One-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore, the anti-tax advocate best known as the most prolific author of initiatives in Oregon history, looks to be back in a big way: In an interview, Sizemore said he is juggling seven potential ballot measures.

He already has turned in thousands of signatures for two of those, Sizemore said, and is waiting for an indication from the Secretary of State’s office that the requisite number of those signatures were valid.

Among the proposals Sizemore is backing:

• Allowing Oregon taxpayers to claim an unlimited deduction for their federal taxes on their state income tax reforms. Opposition groups, including the union-backed Our Oregon, say that could slice $2 billion from the state budget by 2011.

• Requiring all non-English speaking students to be placed in English-only classes within one to two years time, depending on their age. The Oregon Education Association, which is gearing up to fight that proposal, says it will remove local control from individual school districts.

• A plan to tie pay raises for teachers to student performance on tests, and to mandate that educators’ job security is based on student performance and academic background, not seniority. That plan is also expected to face heavy opposition from the state teachers’ union; Sizemore said he is planning to turn in an early round of signatures for the measure in the next week or so.

The anti-tax group FreedomWorks also is weighing in; that group is taking particular aim at lawyers. One of their proposed measures would limit the fees that lawyers can collect in civil cases, while another would make lawyers financially liable if they bring forward lawsuits that are deemed “frivolous.”

If those measures make the ballot, an expensive campaign can be expected; lawyers have spent heavily in recent years to defeat measures aimed at imposing a cap on medical malpractice damages.

Ballot initiatives from liberal groups, meanwhile, are few and far between so far. Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling, a Democrat, has filed notice that he’ll push again for a plan to allow independent voters a say in partisan primaries. That’s a plan that has won support – and resistance – from Democrats and Republicans alike.

State Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner, a Democrat, is working on a proposal to require employers to pay overtime if an employee works more than eight hours. But Gardner said this past Thursday that he’s still testing the waters, to see if he can raise enough money to help propel the measure onto the November 2008 battle.

Meanwhile, another of Sizemore’s potential initiatives take aim at a familiar target: public employee unions. The idea, he said, is to block the use of the public payroll system to separate out union dues, a portion of which might be spent on political causes.

Sizemore said he’s undaunted by voters’ decision to soundly reject all of the conservative-leaning ballot measures in 2006, calling that election “a fluke.”

“It is like being at the ocean and a freak wave comes up and catches you and rolls you,” he said. “I think 2008 will be as good for the taxpayers and conservatives in Oregon as 2006 was bad.”

Other conservative-skewing measures that could surface on the 2008 ballot include proposals to repeal gay rights legislation passed in 2007, including a civil unions law and a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Another one-time gubernatorial candidate, Republican Kevin Mannix, is sponsoring an initiative that would impose tougher sentences on those convicted of property crimes.

But before anyone in Oregon votes on these topics, there are more immediate ballot measures at hand. Coming up in November 2007, voters will consider whether to increase the tax on cigarettes to pay for an expansion of children’s health insurance, and whether to revamp Oregon’s private property compensation law. Both of those measures were placed directly on the ballot by state lawmakers.

To successfully place an initiative that would amend the Oregon Constitution onto the ballot, citizen petitioners need to gather signatures from eight percent of recent voters. Initiatives that only amend state statute need valid signatures from only six percent of voters.