On the Oregon Initiative Process
(Oregon Planners' Journal, December 1996)
By Richard Carson
Coming soon to an election near you? BALLOT MEASURE 54-3: Shall the Oregon Constitution be amended to allow for the public flogging of planners who deny land use applications and thereby diminish the property values of real big developers?
I have been reflecting a great deal about our state's initiative process. Specifically, how easy it is for any crackpot (crackpot refers to any group or individual with an axe to grind) to place a ballot measure before the voters.
I am sure that the founding fathers and mothers of this state did not envision paid signature gathers when they designed the initiative process. I am equally positive they did not conceive of people like Lou Mabon and Bill Sizemore using the initiative process to discriminate against one group of citizens or hamstring the ability of local governments to provide adequate levels of public services.
The last two general elections provide more than enough evidence of how Oregon's initiative process has become perverted, distorted and overwhelming. The issues have ranged from property tax limitations to anti-gay rights to outlawing cougar and bear baiting, etc., ad nauseam. The girth of this year's voters' pamphlet (oh, that's right, there were two) was equal to Leo Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace.
Lately, the trend seems to be how to best attack the governments (and by extension their evil agents the "public employees") through the use of ballot measures. In short, the initiative process has become so perverted that it can now be used as a tool by the mean spirited and selfish to exact their pound of flesh from a group they deem to be unworthy of the same constitutional protections that they enjoy.
The major problem with the initiative process in Oregon today is that it usurps and confounds the very thing that our country is supposedly based on: a republican form of government. No, that doesn't mean that we all have the right to vote for a member of the Republican Party. What is does mean, however, is that all laws should be approved, proposed or subject to revision by an elected governing body.
You know, the stolid group of individuals we send to that building in Salem with the gold figure on top of it. And that is really what is missing in this entire equation - an active and deliberate state legislature.
I would like to propose a radical idea. Let's scrap the initiative process altogether and demand that our state legislators do their job. I realize this would put many people out of work - paid signature gathering employees - but the alternative is that issues would be debated and resolved in Salem and not in the parking lots of Fred Meyer, Costco and Wal-Mart. This would not only cut down on the amount of litigation produced by these ballot measures, but would decrease the number of migraines suffered by those who actually do read the voters' pamphlet.
I realize that the idea of scraping our hallowed initiative process is anathema to many, but what was once a useful tool used by honorable people to advance noble causes has mutated into something very ugly, petty and expensive. An 18th Century, heretic once queried. "why should the living adhere to laws and customs of the dead?" The heretic was no other than Thomas Jefferson.
Richard Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and a board member of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association.