Conservative Measures Likely to Dominate Oregon Ballot

The political conversation in Oregon this fall will be dictated by the state’s conservative interests, thanks to an array of ballot measures voters are likely to consider in November.

From capping how much state government can spend to cuts in state taxes, the bulk of potential ballot measures submitted to the Secretary of State’s office this week came from the right.

Seven of 12 proposed ballot measures came from groups that have traditionally been identified with Oregon’s conservative movement, including measures to require the regional election of judges and parental notification if girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are seeking an abortion.

“The right has been extremely frustrated in Oregon,” said Ross Day, executive director of Oregonians in Action, a property rights group which is sponsoring a ballot measure that would ban government from condemning property, then handing it over to a private developer.

“Their outlet is the initiative process,” Day said. “One of the reasons that these measures are all going to the ballot is that we can’t get government to respond during the legislative sessions.”

Being able to set the agenda is an advantage, said Russ Walker, who heads the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, which is sponsoring the state income tax and judicial redistricting measures.

“You never lose by having a discussion about your issues — both the left and the right acknowledge that,” Walker said. “You do harm to yourself if you haven’t prepared the resources to have the debate. And we are confident that we have the resources to win this debate.”

More liberal groups, in contrast, are backing just a single item: to start a bulk purchasing program for prescription drugs. Another measure favored by left-leaning groups, this one on universal health care, may not have enough valid signatures to make it onto the ballot.

Liberal groups had been prepared to go to the mat on a ballot measure pushing reforms to the payday loan industry, but state legislators beat them to it during a hastily called special session this spring.

Plans for a “corporate finance accountability” measure backed by union groups were abandoned after selected business interests agreed to join the fight against the state spending limit measure. And a nursing home staffing initiative fell by the wayside after an 11th-hour agreement with industry on the issue.

“The Legislature did progressives a great favor by passing payday loan reforms,” said Patty Wentz, an activist with the liberal-leaning Our Oregon group. “Now that payday loan reform has been passed, we don’t have to run a ballot measure, and we can focus on defending Oregon.”

Their likeliest target is the spending limit measure, sponsored by the Oregon Taxpayers’ Association, which would tie growth in state spending to the previous two years of population and inflation gains.

Matt Evans, a spokesman for the campaign, said they were prepared for fierce opposition, and have been stockpiling resources in anticipation.

“One of the things that has hurt conservative ballot measures in the past is that a lot of money has been spent up front to get something on the ballot with the sense that, ‘Oh, this will pass because it is so popular,'” he said. “Ours will be a real campaign.”

One wildcard is the national mood, which has been tilting against Republicans and could spell trouble for some of the measures. Still, Chuck Adams, a Republican consultant, said the preponderance of conservative measures could divert attention on the left away from candidate races.

“It does force the unions and traditional Democratic sources to spend money they weren’t planning to spend,” Adams said.

Adam Davis, a Portland pollster who has studied voter engagement, said all of this year’s ballot measures, regardless of their pedigree, will need to overcome an increasing trend by disenchanted voters to tune out of the political process.

“There’s an inclination to vote against these things, no matter what the topic is — people don’t trust that things won’t cost more money, or lead to a bigger bureaucracy.” Davis said. “A lot of money will be needed to elevate a particular initiative, and bring it to the level of consciousness.”