Initiative Wars Heating Up Again in Oregon

Conservative activists pushing two anti-lawyer initiatives for the 2008 ballot are violating state elections regulations, a union-backed group has charged.

The conflict is virtually guaranteed to wind up in federal court, even as elections officials prepare for a November 2008 ballot that could be crowded with perhaps a dozen initiative and referendum proposals.

At issue are two ballot measures co-sponsored by Russ Walker, the director of the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, an anti-tax group. The first would limit the contingency fees lawyers can charge their clients, to 10 percent of any court awards above $25,000. The second would allow for lawyers who file frivolous pleadings or motions to be sanctioned.

Neither proposal is likely to sit well with trial lawyers, who are among the strongest donors to the Democratic party.

The union-funded group, Our Oregon, says conservative groups are continuing to collect signatures, even though they were ordered this spring to stop doing so by the Secretary of State’s office for failing to fully comply with state accounting requirements.

Both initiatives need 82,769 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

“When a circulator asks an elector to sign a petition, he or she is representing that the petition is valid and the signature will count,” Our Oregon’s economic fairness director, Angela Martin, wrote in the group’s complaint. “But such a representation is obviously false where the Secretary of State has prohibited the circulation of the petition.”

Ross Day, a lawyer who is representing Walker and the other advocates, said “The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that circulating a petition is core political speech, protected by the first amendment.” He expects their case to wind up in federal court.

State Elections Director John Lindback said the Secretary of State’s office is just trying to enforce new rules passed by the 2007 legislature that require chief initiative petitioners to submit payroll records for each employee, detailing the number of hours worked, the number of signatures collected and the amounts paid.

The Secretary of State’s office also requires copies of all signatures sheets circulated by paid employees. The goal is to ensure that the state’s ban on paying-per-signature isn’t being violated, Lindback said.

The sponsors of the two initiatives have twice failed to turn in complete payroll records, he said, and signatures that are being collected while the suspension is in place won’t be counted.

But Walker countered that the state’s new requirements were “unreasonable,” and designed to drive up the costs of sponsoring an initiative, and Day said he thinks his clients’ arguments will find favor in court.

“The state is going to have to explain to the court why they think they can go ahead and disqualify valid signatures, for no other reason than that they didn’t get the information that they wanted,” he said.

The initiatives are being financially supported by Loren Parks, the owner of an Aloha-based medical equipment company who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Oregon political causes; on May 29, he donated $29,000 to each campaign.

Should the two initiatives make it onto the November ballot, they will have plenty of company. Three measures have already qualified, including:

• Mandatory sentencing for drug dealers, ID thieves, burglars and car thieves.

• A prohibition on using union dues, or other funds collected with “public resources” for political purposes.

• A ban on building permits, if a construction job costs under $35,000.

There will also be three legislatively referred topics on the ballot, including giving 18-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections, allowing legislators affected by redistricting to finish out their terms and eliminating the “double majority” requirements during May and November elections, eliminating the requirement for a 50 percent turnout.

And a host of other items could possibly make the ballot, depending on whether their backers turn in enough valid signatures, including measures to:

• Set aside 15 percent of lottery profits for public safety.

• Create an open primary elections system.

• Require non-English speaking students to be taught solely in English after two years.

• Tie teacher raises and job security to classroom performance.

• Make federal income taxes fully deductible on state returns.