New anti-tax leader rises from ashes of measure

Measure 30’s crushing defeat did more than force another round of state budget cuts.

It crowned a new king of Oregon’s anti-tax movement.

The one-time ruler, Bill Sizemore, has faded from the landscape, his political organization in shambles after a Portland judge ruled it a “sham charity.”

Now the effort is being led not by the next crusading personality, but by a tightly run and well-financed national group with a long agenda: Citizens for a Sound Economy.

It’s a power shift with big implications for state lawmakers and others seeking to boost recession-hammered budgets with higher taxes. Instead of the loyal local opposition, they’re now up against the Wal-Mart of retail politics, an entrenched franchise whose parent firm resides a continent away.

Based in Washington, D.C., but with field offices seeded across the nation, Citizens for a Sound Economy cemented its lead role in Oregon’s tax wars by forcing the referral and ultimate defeat of the Legislature’s $800 million tax increase earlier this month.

“We definitely have more members than we’ve ever had before, and we’re a much stronger organization” thanks to the Measure 30 trouncing, said Russ Walker, the low-key but fiercely devoted leader of the group’s Oregon outpost.

His organization has gained influence in Oregon over the past several years while attracting little notice, Walker said. But the intersecting events of Sizemore’s legal downfall and the tax increase drew public attention — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — to Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Unlike Sizemore, who ran an unsuccessful race for governor in 1998, Walker doesn’t seek personal publicity and expresses no ambition for political office. Details of his life — he’s 36, married with three children, grew up in Southern Oregon and once worked in a lumber mill — have begun making regular appearances in the news media, but he prefers talking about his group more than himself.

He readily accepts the designation of Citizens for a Sound Economy as the new go-to group for unhappy taxpayers.

“We’re happy to fill that role if that’s what has been opened for us,” Walker said.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sizemore conceded he’s been too pinned down by his lawsuit problems to work on initiatives this year.

“Russ Walker has taken my place as the leading taxpayer advocate in this state,” Sizemore said. “I wish him the best at it.”

Influence grows with victories Established in the mid-1980s, Citizens for a Sound Economy has grown into one of the nation’s top advocacy centers for cutting taxes and restricting government growth. It prides itself on taking direct action, rather than offering “think tank” reports on tax and spending issues.

The group’s victory in Oregon gives it dramatically more clout, political observers say. Almost overnight, it has become a force to be reckoned with by lawmakers, interest groups and people who finance political campaigns and ballot measures.

“It seems like kind of a new era for CSE,” said M. Dane Waters, a national initiative and referendum expert, using the shorthand term for Walker’s group. The organization appears to be moving away from broad fiscal issues, such as Social Security privatization and federal deregulation, and playing a direct role in local battles about taxes.

“It definitely will be harder for proponents of tax increases, whether that’s initiative supporters or state legislatures,” said Waters, chairman of the Virginia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute.

The danger lies in local concerns being trampled by national interests, say critics who battled Citizens for a Sound Economy during the Measure 30 campaign. The group’s policy, they say, is to oppose any tax increases, anywhere, regardless of the circumstances.

Decisions about Oregon “are not being made in Oregon,” said Chuck Sheketoff, who leads the Silverton-based Oregon Center for Public Policy, a think tank that often argues in support of state-funded programs that help the needy.

Sheketoff said Walker “doesn’t have a board. He doesn’t answer to Oregonians. They can’t decide whether to hire or fire him.” Those decisions are made in Washington, D.C.

Walker countered that Measure 30 was defeated by Oregon volunteers using mostly Oregon money. He compares Citizens for a Sound Economy with the Sierra Club and other national groups that have local offices.

But he acknowledges that his work in Oregon is part of a broader, national effort by the group.

Last year, Citizens for a Sound Economy set up shop in Alabama to oppose Gov. Bob Riley’s proposed $1.2 billion tax increase aimed at boosting the state’s school system out of the national cellar. With the group running ads and appearing daily on talk radio, voters rejected the increase by a 3-1 ratio.

Next, the group set its sights on Oregon and the $800 million in tax increases the 2003 Legislature passed to balance the state budget. Here, the group had to do far more than campaign against a tax increase. It organized a 90-day signature-gathering blitz to put the issue on the statewide ballot as a referendum, then made sure opponents of the tax increase cast their votes to kill it.

“The win in Alabama required typical political work,” said Waters, the initiative and referendum expert. “What happened in Oregon packs a more powerful punch.”

Selecting future battlegrounds Now Waters and others are watching how Citizens for a Sound Economy does in Washington state, where Gov. Gary Locke has proposed a 1 percentage point increase in the state sales tax to raise $1 billion for schools.

Mimicking the Oregon and Alabama models, the group has set up a field office in Lacey, Wash., with a full-time paid director to mobilize opposition. The new director, Jamie Daniels, said she expects similar results.

“It’s only been a week since the governor announced this plan, and we’ve got people coming out of the woodwork asking what they can do,” Daniels said. “It’s going to be door to door, neighbor to neighbor.”

As in Oregon, Washington’s anti-tax movement had been led locally by an activist who ran into legal troubles related to his political finances. Tim Eyman, responsible for several successful tax-cutting initiatives, said he welcomes the rise of Citizens for a Sound Economy.

“The more, the merrier,” Eyman said. A national group that uses grass-roots strategies at the state level presents a potent political force, he said.

And the impact goes beyond state borders, Eyman said. Every time a state such as Oregon sends such a definitive message about taxes, “that really resonates in Washington, D.C.”

“CSE has made that connection better than any other national organization,” Eyman said.

With Measure 30 now history, Walker said his group will turn its attention to other issues. Among them: a potential limit on state spending tied to inflation and population growth, property rights and limits on lawsuits against businesses.

“We have lots of work,” Walker said, “to do in Oregon.”

Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226; harryesteve@news.oregonian.com

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