One of the old saws about politicians goes like this: “Question: How do you know when a politician is lying?”
“Answer: His lips are moving.”
Voter trust – or lack thereof – is a recurring backdrop for many local and state ballot measures in the Nov. 7 general election.
Some observers say distrust of government is fueling several of the 10 statewide initiatives, including those that would limit legislators’ terms, curb state spending, restrict the government’s power to condemn private property, and dictate geographic boundaries for election of judges to statewide courts.
Meanwhile, in Lane County, the fate of the most expensive local measure on the ballot – a $27 million annual countywide income tax for public safety – could hinge on whether voters trust that the government has made an honest case and that the only answer is “more taxes.”
Analysts say ballot measures that exploit voter mistrust are nothing new. But some say skepticism of government is up – and may play a bigger role in the final tallies this year.
Voter cynicism is “real high,” said Russ Walker, Oregon director for FreedomWorks, a national group supporting the Oregon income-tax-cutting Measure 41 along with Measure 40, which would require the election of appeals and Supreme Court judges from different geographic districts, rather than statewide.
“With anything that’s viewed as `We’re going to fight city hall,’ there’s a lot of support for those ideas, because city hall hasn’t been delivering,” Walker said.
To trust or not to trust
Trust is a key issue in national-level issues. And that may color voter attitudes about local and state leaders and measures, observers say.
The Associated Press reported this month that about half of likely voters say recent disclosures of financial corruption and sexual scandal in Congress will be “very” or “extremely” important when they vote. In a CNN poll, only half of the respondents said they feel Republicans and Democrats have high ethical standards.
Portland political analyst Tim Hibbitts said the specific battles for and against particular Oregon ballot measures ultimately could prove more influential than voters’ overall perceptions of government and politicians.
But pollster Mike Riley, of Portland-based polling firm Riley Research Associates, said faith in national public bodies is very low, and “that’s probably going to impact” voting on Oregon issues.
Distrust could lead voters to support initiatives that are perceived as “a way to get things done when the Legislature fails,” Riley said.
Margaret Noel, president of the Oregon League of Women Voters, said “limiting government” is a theme running through several of the statewide measures, reflecting the limited-government ideology of the groups and individuals that spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars to get those measures onto the ballot.
Those forces include Walker’s Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks, Nevada millionaire and Oregon business owner Loren Parks, and the Illinois-based organizations U.S. Term Limits and Americans for Limited Government, which are run by New York real estate investor Howard Rich.
These entities have bankrolled measures to prevent government from condemning private property for private-sector economic development work (Measure 39); to require the election of judges from districts (Measure 40); to cut state income taxes (Measure 41); to reinstate legislative term-limits (Measure 45); and to limit state spending (Measure 48).
The measures are attempts by out-of-state groups and individuals with an ideological distrust of government to take advantage of similar misgivings among Oregonians, Noel said. Her league opposes all of these initiatives.
“This doesn’t come from Oregonians looking at problems that have occurred in Oregon,” Noel said.
“This comes from people outside the state who have a vested interest in limiting government.”
Dislike of taxes
The campaigns for some measures play directly to voter skepticism.
Television ads promoting the spending limit initiative remind voters of the string of Oregon legislators who failed to disclose that beer and wine distributors paid for their trips to Hawaii. The message: State lawmakers are too busy partying with lobbyists on tropical islands to bother running the state in a wise and thrifty fashion.
Supporters of the tax cut and spending-limit measures hammer away at the theme that government wastes money on needless programs and excessive pay and benefits for employees.
Other measures offer a more uplifting rationale for support. Supporters of Measure 40 say they want judges on Oregon’s two top courts to be “accountable to the people” and to “adequately represent all areas of the state.”
Judy Bonn, a Walterville-area retiree, voted for measures 41 and 48, calling them fair controls on how state government spends taxes. She has scant trust in government – be it the local, state or federal level.
“There’s a good percentage of them that can just go away at all levels,” she said. “We are taxed and taxed and taxed, and there’s never an attempt by government to explain why the taxes happen, or to try to live within its means.”
Bonn directs particular ire at the Lane County income tax measure, which she called “totally deceptive.”
The ballot language states that a “yes” vote would limit the government’s taxing authority. Voters must read an accompanying informational insert to learn that voting “yes” also enacts the tax.
Said Reis Kash, a Springfield-area retiree: “If you can’t trust the government to put a measure before you honestly, then people are going to say, `Hey, they tried to swindle me on this one. I don’t think I’ll support the school tax’ or `I don’t think I’ll support that tax.’
“The person who wrote the (county income tax wording) should get the Slick Willie award for political deception,” he added.
Defending the measure
But Diane Moore, a 50-year-old Elmira accountant who served on the committee that wrote the explanatory statement about the income-tax measure, said the measure was crafted to do what the wording says – limit the county’s ability to tax.
Moore said she’s taken the time to educate herself about the county and its spending, and that’s given her a new appreciation of the five-member board of county commissioners.
“Have they earned my trust? Yes they have, because they work hard,” Moore said. “Every one of them is extremely hard-working. They are trying to please such a diverse population – I don’t know how they do their job, honestly.”
Kash and Moore agree on one thing: Distrust of government is up.
Moore attributes that to debate surrounding national issues such as the Iraq war and the related issues of civil and human rights.
Kash agrees. “I have never seen contention like we have now,” she said. “It abolishes trust – you cannot live in an environment where everyone hates somebody else.”