Local antitax bid not so local

The day after lawmakers passed an $800 million tax increase, several Oregon political groups rushed forward with a plan to force a statewide vote on the issue, trumpeting the effort as a locally driven, grass-roots rebellion.

In the weeks since, however, it has become clear that most of the financial and organizational muscle behind the referendum is coming from a Washington, D.C.-based group with a relatively new franchise in Oregon.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, considered one of the nation’s best-financed centers for conservative activism, has taken the lead role in collecting the 50,420 signatures needed to put the tax increase on a Feb. 3 special ballot. The deadline for turning in signatures is Nov. 25.

If that succeeds, the group is ready to head the ensuing campaign to overturn the tax plan, which includes a temporary surcharge on personal income taxes and permanent increases in some business taxes.

Opponents of the referendum effort — those who want to protect the Legislature’s budget — already have begun using Citizens for a Sound Economy as a potential wedge with voters. The outcome of the signature drive and, potentially, the election could hinge partly on whether they succeed in trying to paint the group as a corporate-backed outsider with little concern for the fate of Oregon’s finances.

“It shows the vulnerability of the initiative and referendum system to out-of-state influences,” says Chuck Sheketoff, director of the Silverton-based Oregon Center for Public Policy, which studies issues that affect low-income residents.

Nationally, Citizens for a Sound Economy claims 280,000 members and has battled not only tax increases, but also textbook choices, environmental regulations and product liability laws. But it is largely unknown in Oregon, a state more used to responding to homegrown – antitax measures by Gresham resident Don McIntire or Bill Sizemore’s now-defunct Oregon Taxpayers United.

The group’s Northwest director, Russ Walker, has kept a deliberately low profile, saying he doesn’t want to make himself, or his organization, a target.

“The news media have never really noticed us,” says Walker, an Oregon native who lives in Keizer. “That’s OK with me.”

But in a state where voters typically wade through long lists of ballot measures every two years — and where several cases of initiative fraud have made headlines — the motives, methods and people behind the campaigns carry almost as much weight as the issues.

“They are the quintessential AstroTurf group,” says Patty Wentz of the Voter Education Project, a labor-backed group that is closely monitoring signature gathering by referendum supporters. “They pretend to be local, to be grass roots, but they’re really getting their money from corporations.”

Walker scoffs at the criticism.

“They’re grasping at straws to marginalize us,” he says. “People who know me clearly know how much time I’ve spent building the grass-roots membership.”

Volunteers already have collected thousands of signatures, he says. “You can’t do that if you’re an AstroTurf organization.”

Furthermore, Walker says, the group has collected $300,000 in donations to support the referendum, all from in-state donors. He declined to say who provided the money, and disclosure reports won’t be available until after the petition deadline passes.

Most of the cash is going to Arno Political Consultants, a California signature-gathering company that hires paid petitioners, adding grist to charges that the referendum is being manipulated by outside forces.

“We know Oregon has long been a place for national groups to come try out initiatives to see how they fly,” Wentz says. Citizens for a Sound Economy “is coming in as the big dog in organizing things, because they have the money.”

Walker does his best to counter the outsider image by noting his Oregon roots and his group’s growing presence in the state.

The group claims 12,000 “active” members in Oregon. To join that category, someone must write at least one e-mail to a lawmaker in a year, attend one meeting or participate in some other activity sponsored by Citizens for a Sound Economy, Walker says.

Created in 1984 Jumping into Oregon’s tax fray was a natural, Walker says. Since its inception in 1984, Citizens for a Sound Economy has fought tax increases at the national and local levels in the belief that higher taxes do little but slow the economy.

The group has grown into one of the nation’s most aggressive advocates for shrinking government and allowing more individual freedoms. But it also has been attacked as a “front” group for corporations.

It has a history, critics say, of working for causes such as telecommunications deregulation and civil-lawsuit reform, in conjunction with large donations from companies that stand to benefit.

Walker says his group supports a strong public school system but thinks the Legislature took a reckless course by increasing taxes without giving serious study to trimming lower-priority state programs. He says the Legislature should have passed more economic stimulus bills, such as one that would have allowed more logging in state forests.

Walker is an employee of the national group, which pays his salary. He formed the Oregon branch about four years ago. Before that, he worked for Oregon Right to Life and on assorted other political campaigns.

“This is really the first time Citizens for a Sound Economy has stepped to the plate in a big way (in Oregon) and led the charge,” says Chip Terhune, spokesman for Our Oregon Coalition, which supports the tax increase. “Other times, they’ve been relegated to the back burner.”

Citizens for a Sound Economy first made waves in Oregon about three years ago when it helped publicize a videotape that showed state fish and wildlife officials clubbing salmon to death at a Coast Range hatchery. The tape inspired outrage among groups trying to loosen environmental protections for salmon. Walker’s group also was the main opposition to Measure 28, a proposed temporary income tax increase that voters rejected in January.

“The media likes to give attention to the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party,” Walker says. “But we’ve been the ones carrying the water.”

Walker grew up in Southern Oregon, the son of an insurance agent. He worked in lumber mills, spent nine years in the U.S. Army, including a stint with the Oregon National Guard, and studied political science for four years at Brigham Young University.

He met his wife in college, and the couple have three school-age children. He doesn’t like to get much more specific than that. He won’t give his age, other than to say he’s in his 30s, or the ages of his children, worried that they might be subject to taunts at school.

He doesn’t want the address of his Wilsonville campaign office known. In short, he says, he wants to avoid some of the publicity pitfalls that have tripped up other tax activists.

“I’m not the issue. Citizens for a Sound Economy is not the issue,” Walker says. “Taxes are the issue.” Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226; harryesteve@news.oregonian.com