Paid petitioners to hit anti-tax measure campaign trail

SALEM – The campaign to repeal the legislative tax increase is just a few days old, but both sides are already playing hardball.

A union-backed watchdog group said Wednesday that it plans to closely monitor the paid workers who are getting ready to collect signatures for the referendum campaign, which aims to give voters their say on the $800 million tax package.

Formed in 2001, the Voter Education Project played a key role in last year’s election season. Volunteers observed petition circulators, and videotaped some for irregularities.

As a result of their complaints, two paid petitioners pleaded guilty to criminal charges of forging names on petitions.

Signature challenges by the group also played a part in preventing initiative petition activist Bill Sizemore from getting any measures on the ballot.

“We’ll be on the street doing some educating,” said Patty Wentz, spokeswoman for the Voter Education Project.

Russ Walker, a leader of the anti-tax campaign, said about two dozen petitioners will be hired and should be on the street within seven days. Volunteers have already been collecting signatures.

Walker, the Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said his group plans to contract for paid circulators with an out-of-state company that specializes in petition drives.

Citizens for a Sound Economy is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that gets substantial funding from business.

It advocates lower taxes and less government. The group has already provided $25,000 for the referendum campaign.

Opponents of the tax increase need to collect 50,420 signatures from registered voters by Nov. 25 to block the increases and refer the issue to a special Feb. 3 election.

Voters passed a law last fall that bars petition carriers from getting paid by the signature. Backers of the measure said per-signature compensation encourages cheating.

“Volunteers turn in signatures at a lower rate of forgery than do paid circulators,” Wentz said.

Walker said tax referendum leaders will ensure that paid circulators know the laws they have to follow.

However, he said the Voter Education Project observers need to respect those who wish to sign. He said the monitors typically oppose the initiatives and try intimidate people from signing.

“They’re trying to keep people from engaging in this process,” he said. “They made their point loud and clear with Bill Sizemore.”

Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said the point of monitoring petitioners “is not to argue the measure” but to watch for improper activity.

The labor federation’s annual convention last week endorsed the tax increase and is advising union members not to sign referendum petitions.

Walker said there is great anger about the tax increase among the public and that more than 3,000 citizens have asked his organization to send them petitions.

“We expect to make our goal,” he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)