Antitax drive, legal wars begin

Paid petition circulators are expected to hit the streets this week to give voters a shot at overturning the $800 million tax increase approved last month by the Oregon Legislature.

But close behind will be members of the Voter Education Project, a union-backed watchdog group that plans to scrutinize the signature drive for potential election law violations.

This pre-election skirmish has become the new norm in Oregon’s ever-changing initiative and referendum system, in which legal challenges play a role at least as big as the actual campaigns and final vote count.

Referendum supporters say the unions are out to block voters from having their say on the tax increase. A spokeswoman for the Voter Education Project said her group just wants to make sure the issue doesn’t reach the ballot fraudulently or illegally.

The latest development in the give-and-take occurred Saturday when backers of the referendum said they planned to print new signature petitions to avoid a possible legal issue raised by opponents.

The decision to print new sheets delayed on-the-street circulation of petitions by at least several days, said Russ Walker, a leader of the antitax campaign. An earlier version of the sheets has been circulating around the state with help from volunteers.

Underlying the opposing strategies is an assumption that the best — perhaps the only — hope of maintaining the tax increase lies in preventing it from ever reaching the ballot.

“They know they can’t defeat it once it’s on the ballot,” Walker said. “They’ve seen the polls. They know the only way they’re going to stop this thing is to stop it before we get it on the ballot.”

Oregon lawmakers adopted a series of personal and business tax increases, including a three-year income tax surcharge, to boost state spending on schools, health programs and public safety. The tax increase immediately was challenged by the state Republican Party and a number of antitax groups.

Walker is Oregon director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C., group that opposes tax increases around the country. His organization is bankrolling the referendum effort and has hired a California firm, Arno Political Consultants, to oversee the signature drive.

If they collect 50,420 valid signatures by Nov. 25, the tax increase will be the subject of a Feb. 3 special election.

This will be the first signature drive to come under new state regulations that require hourly wages for paid petitioners instead of the past “bounty” method of paying per signature. That alone makes oversight imperative, said Patty Wentz, who helps run the Voter Education Project.

“We’re going to make sure if it gets on the ballot, it’s on there cleanly and honestly,” Wentz said.

In the past, Wentz’s group has caught petition circulators on videotape forging signatures, which led to criminal prosecutions. Funded by public employee unions, the group often tracks petition circulators to watch how they conduct themselves.

Many don’t realize they could face criminal sanctions if they don’t follow state laws, Wentz said.

“We’re going to be getting the word out to the petitioners what the law is — and that they are culpable if they break the law,” she said.

The voter education group is considering filing a complaint based on a report that petitions were left unattended at a radio station booth during a Sept. 20 air show in Hillsboro. Under state regulations, petition circulators must witness each signature.

Walker said the group is trying to dream up obstacles . He calls Wentz’s group the “Voter Intimidation Project” and considers its tactics an underhanded way to fight political battles.

But he said he isn’t worried about losing on a technicality. The consulting firm hired to handle the signature gathering has a long track record of success. Arno Consulting put one measure on the California ballot after collecting 700,000 signatures in 17 days, according to the business’s Web site.

“They have a good reputation; they can get the job done,” Walker said. The group charges a lot, but was hired because “We were confident they could comply with Oregon law, which was a major concern of ours.”

Walker would not say how much the contract with Arno is worth. Campaign expense reports aren’t required to be filed until after the election.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said supporters of the tax have reason to worry if the issue makes it on the ballot because Oregon voters have shown a willingness to reject such increases.

But he said “calling an election when the event is four or five months away is just a dangerous thing to do.” Much depends on the campaigns that follow, how much is spent and what is happening to the statewide economy.

Stopping the referendum before it makes the ballot “might be their best chance to defeat it, but I wouldn’t say it’s their only chance,” Hibbitts said.

Supporters of the tax increase, which they refer to as the “bipartisan revenue package” approved by the Legislature, have begun organizing in case tax opponents get enough signatures.

“The odds are probably with them,” said Chip Terhune, director of a group called Our Oregon Coalition, which was formed to raise money and provide volunteers to keep the tax increase in place. “The campaign begins now.”

Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226;