Petition flap delays campaign on streets

Supporters of a campaign to overturn a tax increase package called a temporary halt to signature gathering on Saturday in light of a legal question about wording on its petition sheets.

The leader of the drive to place the Oregon Legislature’s tax plan on the ballot said the campaign decided to print new petition sheets. It also canceled plans to have paid signature collectors begin working on the street this weekend.

The decision will delay renewed signature gathering until well into the week, said Russ Walker, the Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is paying the costs of the campaign.

Walker said organizers are calling in 250,000 old petition sheets, many mailed throughout the state. He said the cost of printing new petition sheets would be “tens of thousands of dollars.”

He said campaign organizers still expect to meet the Nov. 25 deadline to turn in enough valid voters’ signatures to put the $800 million tax bill before voters.

“We’ll make it,” Walker said. “I have no doubt in my mind.”

The situation stems from a challenge to explanatory wording on the petition by the Voter Education Project, a petition watchdog group backed by public employee unions. The project had filed an objection with the state.

Patty Wentz, a spokeswoman for the Voter Education Project, said the wording on the old petitions is “bureaucratic gobbledygook” that cites more than a dozen state statutes without explanation. State law, she said, calls for more understandable wording from the tax increase legislation.

John Lindback, Elections Division director, said Saturday that the state had approved the initial petition sheet wording. However, state officials told campaign organizers last week that new wording would be safer.

“We are prepared to defend our original decision if challenged in court,” Lindback said. However, he said, “We told the chief petitioners that we cannot guarantee we would win.”

Walker said his group Monday would file with the state courts for a declaratory judgment upholding the new wording. Wentz said her group would monitor each step of the process, including whether referendum supporters try to use signatures on the old petitions.

Walker said he did not know what the campaign would do with signatures on the old sheets.

He criticized the Voter Education Project’s challenge, saying, “They don’t care about the democratic process. They only care about disrupting it.”

Wentz said petition language “should be readable by the general public. . . . It is not disruptive to the democratic process to make sure that voters understand the democratic process.”

Dan Hortsch: 503-221-8223;