Signature-gatherers’ pay being investigated

SALEM, Ore. State election officials are investigating a complaint that petitioners for an anti-tax campaign may be breaking a law against paying workers for each signature they gather.

Anne Martens, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, also said yesterday that the office is looking into an allegation that a petition circulator gave false information about the tax measure to prospective signers.

Both complaints were brought by the Voter Education Project, a watchdog group that monitors those who collect signatures for ballot measures.

Patty Wentz, spokeswoman for the organization, said media reports that petitioners are being paid higher wages and getting bonuses based on the number of signatures gathered per hour demonstrate that the law has been broken.

Martens said a rule adopted by Bradbury in implementing the law allows bonuses and increased salaries based on “productivity.” She said that seems to provide leeway to pay extra for more rapid signature gathering “so long as it’s not by the signature and they still pay per hour ordinarily.”

“In our view, it’s a fairly standard business practice to increase compensation for performance,” she added.

Martens said petition leaders have been asked for payment information and that election officials will evaluate that before reaching a conclusion.

Foes of the $800 million tax-increase measure passed by the Legislature in August are trying to collect 50,000 signatures by a Nov. 25 deadline. That would send the proposal to the voters at a special Feb. 3 election.

Last year, Oregon voters passed a law banning paying petitioners per signature, leaving them to be paid hourly or on some other basis. Backers said the change was necessary to prevent forgeries.

Russ Walker, Oregon director of Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for a Sound Economy, says the complaints by the union-backed Voter Education Project are just harassment intended to hamper the referendum drive.

Walker has said he’s confident those paying the petitioners are complying with the law.

Wentz’s group also asked Bradbury’s office to investigate a report that a petitioner falsely told citizens the petition would put mo0ney into schools.

Martens said she could not comment on that investigation because it involves a potential criminal offense. She said information gathered would be turned over to the Attorney General’s Office.

Defeat of the tax increases would trigger a $400 million cut in state school support. Legislators put the temporary increase in place to plug a hole left by steep declines in income-tax collections.