Change in Oregon’s initiative process heatedly debated in outer East Portland

Will slowing down Oregon’s citizen ‘initiative process’ by an additional two years for ‘thoughtful deliberation’ really build better laws? See why both Republicans and Democrats say ‘yes, it will’ and ‘no, it won’t’ …

Executive Club’s leader, Don McIntire, introduces the program’s panel: Independent Dan Meek, Oregon Senator Frank Morse, imitative attorney Ross Day, and Oregon House Representative Larry Galizio.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A bill that would substantially change Oregon’s Citizen Initiative process was introduced, discussed, and debated on March 4 at the monthly meeting of the Executive Club at the Airport Shilo Inn before a packed, standing-room-only house.

Oregon Senator Frank Morse, and Oregon Representative Larry Galizio pitched the merits of the bill they are co-sponsoring, Senate Joint Resolution 11. (To read a PDF document introducing SJR 11 for yourself, CLICK HERE.) Attorneys Dan Meek and Ross Day told why they opposed the bill.

Don McIntire introduces the panel and outline’s the topic of discussion.

Calls it a ‘radical reform’ in the citizen-initiative process
The Executive Club’s “Interim President for Life”, Don McIntire, set the stage for the discussion by characterizing SJR 11 a radical reform of the Oregon initiative system.

The bill proposes a state constitutional amendment, McIntire said, that would alter the initiative process by requiring that any initiative, with enough signatures to make the ballot, would be held until it was reviewed in a regular session of the State legislature.

As part of the review, the initiative would be put to an “advisory vote” by State legislators; the Secretary of State would post the results of the vote.

“As a practical matter, the law would delay initiatives by an additional two years before it came up for a vote of the people,” McIntire noted. “There is no doubt, also, that this measure would enable the legislature to create competing measures if they so choose.”

Oregon Senator Frank Morse advocates for letting initiative measures “season” before going on the ballot.

Morse likens process to sausage-making in Salem
Oregon Senator Frank Morse, a Republican from Albany, began, “Otto von Bismarck the Prime Minister of Prussia said laws and sausages are the two things you do not want to see being made. Initiatives are often criticized for their complexity or bad drafting.  That’s one reason we offer for slowing down the process and inserting an additional 24 month delay.”

Morse said one of the reasons for slowing down the initiative process is because of the financial impacts many measures have on the State budget. “Measures represented 50% of the spending increase from 1989 to 2007,” Morse noted as he reminded attendees that more citizen-lead initiatives have been passed in Oregon than any other state.

Nevertheless, Morse stated he had no interest in denying citizen’s access to the legislative process. “We want to create a more informed process, so voters will have a better depth of understanding on what they are voting about – including the fiscal impacts. Sometimes it takes more than a biennium for [an initiative measure] to ‘season’ before it becomes law.”

Attorney Dan Meek says citizens sponsor initiatives on issues the State legislators avoid.

Meek says measure will causes an ‘unnecessary delay’
Attorney Dan Meek – some say he knows more about citizen intuitive than anyone – said he opposes SJR 11 because “it slows down the process for no good reason”.

“It imposes a two-year delay on an initiative after it is certified to going to the ballot,” Meek began. “I don’t see a reason to delay. After a citizen puts forth the effort to put a timely measure on the ballot, it is ‘shut down’ for 28 months; it’s subjected to an unbinding ‘straw vote’, and opponents get unlimited space [in the Voter’s Guide] to argue against it.”

Meek opined that the only reason citizens spend the time, money, and effort to put initiatives on the ballot is that “it permits people of Oregon to vote on issues the State legislators will not address, or oppose.”

He also decried that the Oregon Attorney General will write citizen-initiative ballot measure titles and descriptions. “The proponents should write the ballot title and description with no review. And, let’s apply this to the legislature-sponsored bills as well.”

Oregon Rep. Larry Galizio tells why he thinks SJR 11 will “add transparency” to the initiative process.

New process will ‘increase transparency’, postulates Galizio
Oregon Rep. Larry Galizio, a Democrat from Tigard, began, “When I was walking in, I heard one guest say [this measure] will eliminate the petition system. I can say that this not the goal of this legislation.”

During the deliberative discussion, Galizio said anyone, including the bill’s chief petitioners, can testify, and maybe answer some difficult questions of significance and conceptualize the intent of the initiative. The purpose is to increase the deliberative discussion and provide more accountability. This does not take place in the status quo, I would argue.”

The “status quo”, Galizio argued, works for “wealthy people and unions and out-of-state interests. The [labor] unions have figured out how to ‘play defense’ well; and make effective arguments against bills they don’t favor.”

The other problem with the “status quo” Galizio is that “The media have failed to cover politics in a meaningful kind of way. For a lot of busy people, the media is focused on selling ads; the focus is on sensationalism. People see a lot of ads, but don’t hear much public discourse.”

Because the State legislature may start meeting annually, Galizio said there might not be a two-year delay if this measure passes.

“I think what [SJR 11] does, is that it errs on the side of more transparency, greater deliberative discussion, and more discourse. If you think your idea is good enough and it will withstand that kind of rigorous analysis, then I think you’ll like this concept.”

Point by point, public action attorney Ross Day refutes the reasons he’s heard that SJR 11 will help the citizen initiative process.

Day blasts bill into night
Ross Day, a public action attorney with “Oregonians in Action”, and also a new organization, “Common sense for Oregon”, said he was skeptical that the intent of Oregon’s legislature was to aid the citizen initiative process.

“I have to be honest with you,” Day began, “With all due respect to the Senator, if what we’re talking about transparency – what the Democrats did with Measure 49 is a crime. It’s hard to believe that [SJR 11] is somehow going to create more transparency. The ballot titles for Measure 50 and Measure 57 – they were anything but transparent.”

Day schooled the crowd, pointing out that Oregon’s citizen initiative system is established in Article 4 of the Oregon Constitution.

“It is very unique, because the very first section of Article 4 delineates legislature’s power,” Day educated. “Half of it is given to the legislature; half of it belongs to the people. It’s a shared power. One side is not supposed to trump the other.”

Regarding the fiscal impacts of citizen-based initiatives, Day stated pointedly, “So, Senator Morris, when you say 50% of the increase [in State spending] is based on initiatives, this means that 50% of the spending increases was because of the legislature. There was this thing called SIM and CAM that wasn’t an initiative – there’s a lot of that kind of spending and they came out of the legislature – that aren’t exactly the results of a very deliberative legislation.”

That initiatives will be improved if delayed in the legislature is a “laughable” concept, Day continued. “To suggest that somehow the ‘fountain of knowledge’ comes from the legislature, and that somehow the ‘great unwashed masses’ are unable to draft a measure, doesn’t fly with me either.”

Agreeing that Oregon has an active initiative system, Day pointed out, “It’s true. To date, there have been more citizen petitions in Oregon than any other state. But also keep in mind that Oregon has the second oldest citizen petition system in the country.” Early in Oregon’s statehood, he noted, “one year, we had 36 measures on the ballot. Let’s put things in their proper context and perspective.”

Day said he also disagreed that the wealthy and out-of-state interests have somehow hijacked Oregon’s initiative system: “Here’s the reason why [petitioners seek outside funding]: in 2000, $250,000 put four measures on the ballot. Last year, it took $400,000 to put one measure on the ballot. The regulations and restrictions that the Legislature has placed on citizen petitioners have driven up the cost.”

Group meets monthly
When asked about his own organization, Don McIntire described the Executive Club this way: “This isn’t a group of activists, but instead, a group where many activists gather to celebrate the principles of limited government. We refer to ourselves as a society established on, and devoted to, free minds and free markets; dedicated to the principles of limited government as envisioned by our nation’s founders.”

They meet the first Wednesday of each month for dinner at 6:00 p.m. at the Airport Shilo Inn on NE Sandy Boulevard on East Airport Way, 2 blocks east of I-205. “An open mind is helpful; reservations are not necessary”.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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