Oregon looks to neighbors’ ballot defeats, reads tea leaves

The ballot defeats suffered Tuesday by conservatives in California and Washington could reshape the political battleground in Oregon next year.

California voters rejected several measures — from spending limits on government to new restrictions on abortion — that activists seek to place on the Oregon ballot in 2006.

In addition, Washington voters preserved a 91/2-cent rise in the state gasoline tax, which may embolden some groups to go to the Oregon ballot seeking targeted tax increases.

Even before Tuesday’s election, it was clear that 2006 was shaping up to be a ballot measure-heavy election year in Oregon. Individuals and groups across the political spectrum have made plans to put initiatives on the ballot after failing to get their issues through an Oregon Legislature divided between a Republican-led House and a Democrat-controlled Senate.

In large part, the results in California and Washington were dictated by local politics. For example, Republicans and Democrats alike blamed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for botched leadership on the four ballot measures he pushed. But the results were also quickly scrutinized by political strategists in Oregon trying to figure out how to proceed next year.

Democrats and union officials exulted at the defeat of Schwarzenegger measures aimed at curbing government spending and public employee unions. They said it would make it harder for conservative activists to pursue similar measures in Oregon.

“It’s a huge setback for the far-right extremist agenda,” said Chip Terhune, chief lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, the state’s main teachers union. “They’re going to have to do a reassessment after this debacle in California.”

The Oregon chapter of Freedom Works, which has emerged as the major initiative group for conservatives in the state, has drafted ballot measures similar to two of those defeated in California. One would cap government spending, and the other would limit the ability of public employee unions to collect dues for political purposes.

Russ Walker, who heads the group’s Oregon chapter, said the California defeat would have no effect on his plans. Instead, he said, it comes down to a question of money.

“We probably won’t run more than three initiatives because we don’t have unlimited resources,” he said. “These are expensive ballot measures.”

At this point, Walker said, his group is committed first to an initiative that would require appellate judges to be elected by district instead of statewide. His group also is considering similar initiatives on union dues and a spending limit, as well as measures that would cut income taxes and require that 65 percent of school money be directed to the classroom.

Patty Wentz of Our Oregon, a union-backed group opposed to the Freedom Works measures, predicted donors would be discouraged from funding measures similar to those defeated in California. She also noted that Colorado voters last week delivered a setback to Freedom Works by suspending a similar spending limit on state government.

However, it does appear Oregon voters will be asked to consider a measure defeated by California voters that would require that parents of daughters younger than 18 be notified before an abortion.

Most states have such a law, and it was the second time a state’s voters had rejected a parental-notice measure. The first was in Oregon in 1990.

Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said her group will proceed with a parental-notice measure, although she acknowledged the defeat in California would energize opponents.

Atteberry says backers of the California measure were not well-organized.

“That will not be the same case here,” she said. “We feel we will be able to get our message out very clearly.”

Rebecca Green, a spokeswoman for Naral Pro-Choice Oregon, said Tuesday’s election “gives us confidence we will be able to defeat this dangerous measure if it makes the ballot in 2006.”

Several Oregon political observers were surprised Washington voters kept the gas tax increase despite the recent run-up in fuel costs. Some said that showed Oregon voters — who have rejected all statewide tax increases in recent years with the exception of higher levies on cigarettes — might be willing to consider some increases.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, said any tax increase would have to be targeted to a specific benefit, such as raising the cigarette tax to provide health care for children or raising the corporate minimum tax — now at $10 — to help higher education.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, who worked for supporters of the gas-tax increase, said he didn’t consider the vote a big change in the way voters view taxes. He said voters became more concerned about preserving the transportation network after Hurricane Katrina and that backers of the gas tax greatly outspent opponents.