Summary: A law limiting signature-gatherers to hourly pay and a ruling restricting where they can work complicates the process As a spate of citizen initiatives hit the streets, backers say they have changed tactics to overcome new restrictions on where petitioners can solicit signatures and how they can be paid.

Instead of relying strictly on paid signature gatherers, they’re putting more emphasis on volunteers, direct mail and door-to-door canvassing.

“We’re getting a tremendous response,” said Russ Walker, Northwest director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which is trying to force a statewide vote on the Oregon’s recent $800 million tax increase.

The referendum is the first statewide signature drive since a legal ruling allowed supermarket chains to ban petitioners from their parking lots, and since voters approved Measure 26, which requires petitioners to be paid by the hour rather than by the signature.

“We’re essentially the guinea pigs of the new initiative process,” said Walker, whose group is spearheading the antitax referendum. “We knew there would be unique challenges that no one has faced before.”

Supporters of initiative proposals say they’re watching the antitax referendum with interest, and moving forward in similar ways.

“So far, all we’re doing is using volunteers and mailing,” said Leigh Ann Foxall, who is working on an initiative to re-establish term limits for state lawmakers. “We haven’t done any paid signature gathering yet.”

Foxall and other initiative sponsors say the process has become far more complicated and expensive than it was just two years ago, which probably will lead to fewer citizen-led ballot measures.

Initiatives also are being circulated on issues relating to property rights, campaign finance reform, marijuana use, property tax limits and union dues used for political campaigns. Of those, only the one on property rights is using paid signature gatherers.

“With any new law, there’s a shakeout period,” said Dane Waters, who heads the Virginia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute. Oregon used to be considered one of the easiest states in which to get a measure on the ballot. “It’s definitely been lowered to the bottom tier,” Waters said.

But for those willing to adapt, the state’s initiative and referendum system remains a potent option for bypassing or reversing the Legislature.

The antitax referendum seeks to overturn a package of temporary and permanent tax increases the Legislature approved in August to balance the 2003-05 budget. If supporters turn in 50,420 valid signatures by Nov. 25, the issue will go on the Feb. 3 ballot.

Walker said he has little doubt they’ll make the deadline. The interesting difference, however, is that about 80 percent of the signatures are coming from volunteers and mailed-in petition sheets, with the remaining 20 percent from paid gatherers.

In recent years, most successful initiative campaigns relied almost exclusively on paid signature collectors.

To get the signatures for the referendum, Walker’s organization mailed out thousands of petitions to likely signers. So did other supporters, including the Taxpayer Association of Oregon and the Oregon Libertarian Party.

Each group was given a signature “goal,” according to Richard Burke, executive director of the Libertarians. Filled out petition sheets are being delivered to a central office in Wilsonville, where they are checked for errors.

Those with invalid signatures are rejected, or sent back to be redone correctly. All that causes costs to rise, Walker said.

Adding to the difficulty has been a battle between Walker and the Voter Education Project, a union-backed group that closely monitors paid petitioners.

On Friday, the group filed its second complaint related to the referendum: This one claimed that signature gatherers are being paid “bonuses” in addition to their hourly wages. In its complaint the Voter Education Project says the bonuses violate the new law against paying by the signature.

The state Elections Division is investigating the complaints.

“They say they’re following (Measure 26), but we don’t believe they are,” said Patty Wentz, spokeswoman for the union group. “We also don’t believe they’re paying signature gatherers for every hour they actually work.”

Walker called the complaints a form of “harassment” and said they have no merit. Walker’s organization hired Arno Political Consultants, a California firm, to handle the paid signature gathering.

“We have confidence Arno is complying with the law,” he said. “These people,” he said referring to the voter project, “know they cannot defeat this referendum if they talk about the issues.”

Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226;