Tax Activist Returns to Oregon’s Political Stage

Sidelined for the past four years because of legal troubles brought on by a racketeering lawsuit, Oregon’s most prolific initiative author — Bill Sizemore — is getting back into the fight.

Sizemore is promoting an initiative measure for the November ballot to prohibit insurance companies from raising customers’ rates solely because they have poor credit history.

It’s a departure from previous measures Sizemore has sponsored to curb the political power of public employee unions, limit the size of government and reduce taxes on Oregonians.

Some of his political allies are puzzled that Sizemore — who ran as the Republican candidate for governor in 1998 — would sponsor an initiative that they view as unwarranted government intrusion in the free marketplace.

“Bill is a friend, but we disagree on this particular issue,” says Russ Walker, Oregon director of FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C.-based group that works for lower taxes and less government regulation of business.

Sizemore for years had dominated Oregon’s public debate by promoting various measures.

In 1994, he successfully sponsored a measure to scale back public employee pensions by requiring them to pay part of their salaries toward their pensions, although the courts later struck down the measure. He also passed an initiative in 1996 capping property taxes.

Four years ago, Sizemore was hit with a $2.5 million judgment after a jury found his organizations had engaged in racketeering that resulted in forged signatures and false financial statements that allowed two anti-union initiatives to be placed on the November 2000 ballot.

A 2003 court injunction stemming from the racketeering lawsuit prohibited him from raising or spending money for political purposes.

Sizemore said he had held off on getting involved in political activity on the advice of his lawyers.

“We didn’t feel we were safe to move in the 2004 election,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.

But he’s decided to defy the injunction — which he says is unconstitutional — while the case is on appeal before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

“It took us a while to come to the conclusion that the court really couldn’t stop me from being politically active,” Sizemore said. “No judge can tell an American citizen that he can’t be involved in the political process.”

Patty Wentz, a leading Sizemore critic who works for the union-backed Our Oregon coalition, thinks the embattled anti-tax activist views his insurance initiative as the “Bill Sizemore resurrection measure.”

She notes that Sizemore’s insurance measure is among eight initiative campaigns under state investigation for allegedly violating a ban on paying signature gatherers by the signature instead of by the hour.

“The leopard can’t change his spots,” Wentz said, referring to Sizemore’s earlier run-ins with the state.

Sizemore says, though, that petitioners were paid by the hour in accordance with the law.

Besides his sponsorship of the insurance measure, Sizemore had a hand in crafting two other measures that are aimed at this November’s ballot.

One would cut state taxes by letting Oregonians use a version of federal exemptions on state tax returns. The other would require Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Court of Appeals judges to be elected by regional district, not statewide.

All three of the initiatives are expected to qualify for the November ballot after the state verifies petition signatures.

Sizemore says the campaigns for the tax and judicial election measures will be handled by others and that he’s going to focus his attention on campaigning for the measure to ban “credit scoring” by insurance companies. It’s a proposal that Sizemore contends is consistent with his past initiatives to help the “little guy.”

“All this measure does is protect the little guy from big insurance companies who are gouging him,” Sizemore said.

The signature-gathering effort for the insurance measure was bankrolled almost entirely with a $100,000 contribution from Loren Parks, the reclusive Nevada conservative who’s funded many of Sizemore’s initiatives in the past.

Sizemore says many insurance customers are being hit with large increases in their premiums only because they have poor credit history. Just because someone has credit problems doesn’t mean they are an insurance risk, he says.

The insurance industry contends there is a link between poor credit and customers who are more likely to file claims and drive up overall insurance costs, and that companies shouldn’t be barred from using credit information when deciding premiums.

“Most Oregonians benefit by paying lower rates with the current system,” says Pat McCormick, a Portland political consultant who’s going to run the insurance industry-backed campaign to defeat the measure.

Political analyst Jim Moore says Sizemore will have a big fight on his hands because he’s targeting an industry with some of the deepest pockets in American business.

The industry likely will spend large amounts of money, much of it to bring up Sizemore’s past legal troubles in an effort to discredit him and his measure, Moore said.

“I would fully expect the insurance industry to try to tag this measure with Bill Sizemore’s name in order to drag him through the mud,” says Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Sizemore believes his measure will find a lot of support among voters and will pass no matter how much money the insurance industry spends against it. He also said he’s not worried about being personally attacked in the coming campaign.

“I’ve never run from a big fight. I look forward to it,” he says.