Election 2002 homework: Our assessment of the 12 statewide initiatives

Election 2002 homework: Our assessment of the 12 statewide initiatives

Oregonians will have 12 statewide measures to think about this year, on subjects ranging from the labeling of genetically engineered food to uniersal health care and a proposed income tax increase.

Some would say that the plethora of ballot titles this year is further evidence of an initiative process that is being abused by special interest groups. The argument goes that many of these issues have no public mandate and appear on the ballot only because special interest groups have enough money to hire people to gather the thousands of signatures which are required to qualify for a place in the election.

Certainly there are some who have abused Oregon's initiative process over the years by hiring paid signature gatherers to place deviously packaged issues before the voters. Bill Sizemore's Measure 5, the property tax limitation which has wreaked havoc on school districts and municipalities around the state, is the granddaddy of them all.

By and large, however, the initiative process is still a good thing because it engages ordinary citizens in the political process. With very few exceptions - including Measure 5 and Measure 18, which outlawed hunting cougars with hounds - Oregonians have rarely been duped by the likes of Bill Sizemore and radical activist groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which backed the anti-hunting measure a few years ago.

This is so because voters have generally done their homework. With 12 statewide issues on the ballot this year they have more homework to do.

To make your job easier the editors of the East Oregonian Publishing Company have prepared a synopsis of this year's statewide measures. This synopsis is similar to one that we did two years ago, based on a grueling day of interviews with proponents and opponents of the issues, who met with us Sept. 27 at the Sheraton Airport Hotel.

We did our best to look at these issues objectively and with the public's best interests in mind. At the end of each narrative is a recommendation based upon the analysis of the editor whose job it was to analyze that particular measure. In other words, this is our best attempt to honestly and objectively assess each measure.

Of course you as the voter may come to a different conclusion on some of these issues - we expect that. After all that is what democracy is all about. Still, as you go about the task of formulating your position on these issues, we hope that you find our analysis of some value.

Measure 14 (racial references)

Where did it come from? After listening to lectures by Portland State University Prof. Darrell Millner, a number of people around the state became aware of racially restrictive phrases in the Oregon Constitution. A group of them coalesced around the idea of amending the Constitution to remove the phrases. Senators Avel Gordly and Margaret Carter were among the prime movers. Their ballot referral was enacted by a wide margin in House and Senate.

What it would do: This constitutional amendment would remove language that identifies restrictions based on members of the white race only. This would remove obsolete historical racial references in the Oregon Constitution

Reality check: The Oregon Constitution is a product of mid-19th century American culture, in which only white males held property and political power. Thus the document restricts from residence people who were of mulatto or black ancestry. It also restricts the ability of people in those classes to own property and be in the court system. "White citizens" is a common restrictive phrase throughout the document.

Once the 14th Amendment passed in 1868, these constitutional provisions could not be enforced. But the language remains.

A number of people testified against the measure. They argued that the phrases were an accurate reflection of that time period.

Recommendation: Yes.

The Oregon Constitution is, to a certain extent a historic relic. It is also an organic, living document. Reasonable Oregonians can well imagine that these antique phrases are offensive to contemporary Oregonians, because they describe a society in which they would have no rights.

Measures 15 & 16

(seismic reinforcement of buildings)

Where did it come from? This legislative referral was put together by a diverse group of scientists, lawmakers and those involved in each of these areas. The state's public buildings are not safe in an earthquake. An earthquake of a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale is coming, say proponents of the measures. "It's going to be devastating," said State Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, speaking for the bipartisan legislative committee formed to address the issue. "It will be like nothing we've ever experienced. The degree of danger varies depending on where you are in the state, but it's not just a threat to Portland."

What it would do: Measure 15 authorizes the state to issue general obligation bonds for seismic rehabilitation of public education buildings, from Kindergarten through college. Its companion bill, Measure 16, does the same for those buildings involved with public safety - hospitals, law enforcement, and emergency response. These measures would give the Legislature the funding ability to pay for structural improvements.

Reality check: Currently the state constitution forbids the Legislature from loaning the state's credit in excess of $50,000, with limited exceptions. While the measures don't allocate dollars, they do allow the Legislature to issue bonds, with a cap of $500 million. The bonds would be repaid from any revenue source other than property taxes.

Why is a constitutional amendment needed when building codes are typically the answer in other states? "Everything else we had tried had failed before," said Courtney on getting the support to get the work done. "This was the only way to get the funding to retrofit and remodel these buildings and get them ready for a massive earthquake." Courtney also notes than 90 percent of the state's school buildings were built in a time when little was known about how buildings could be constructed to withstand an earthquake's impact.

Recommendation: Yes on both.

Measure 17

(age requirement for legislators)

Where did it come from? The Oregon Legislature referred this measure to the voters. The moving force behind the measure was Portlander Jake Oken-Berg, who as an 18-year-old ran a convincing race against Portland Mayor Vera Katz for mayor. The measure was referred to the ballot by large majorities in the state House and Senate. No one testified against it during committee hearings.

What it would do: Amends the Constitution to reduce the minimum age of eligibility for election to the state Legislature from 21 years to 18.

Reality check: The question raised by skeptics of this ballot measure is whether an 18-year-old would have the ability to compromise or indulge in the kind of give and take that is required in a legislative session. Do 18-year-olds have the capacity to move off a position once they staked it out.

The larger logic is that if 18-year-olds can serve in the military and defend the county, why not allow them serve in the Legislature?

Recommendation: Yes.

The questions raised by skeptics are credible. It must also be said that adults as a group are not necessarily predisposed toward compromise and accommodation. The recent special sessions have demonstrated the inability of certain adults to get along in a collegial setting. We are not talking about all 18-year-olds, but the exceptional young person with the desire and ambition to serve in the Legislature. It that person were sufficiently charismatic to rise above the crowd, Oregon might be well served by him or her.

Measure 18

(split rate constitutional amendment)

Where did it come from? Deschutes County commissioner and former state legislator Dennis Luke said his county asked for this legislation in order to introduce permissive language in state law.

What it would do: State law does not include express permission for local taxpayers to voluntarily impose different tax rates in separate tax zones depending on where citizens live. As a result, local agencies such as sheriff's offices can be forced to operate on short-term voter levies rather than receive a more predictable and consistent tax base through public vote. In Deschutes County, for example, voters are asked to approve a levy every three years to support sheriff's services. With passage of Measure 18, voters could be given the option to approve separate tax zones with permanent rate limits. An example is a split rate between city and county jurisdictions to ensure fairness when citizens pay for the services provided by local levels of government.

Reality check: In Deschutes County, passage of Measure 18 would allow the sheriff to receive a permanent tax base via a public vote rather than require a levy every three years to run the sheriff's department. Measure 18 allows local voters to approve permanent tax bases with limits. "It's an option. It's not imposed on anybody without a vote," Luke emphasized. Measure 18 appears to be a housekeeping measure. However, its implications are important to public servants such as Luke who are trying to see that property taxes are properly collected and distributed. Supporters of Measure 18 include the Association of Oregon Counties, League of Oregon Cities and chambers of commerce.

Recommendation: Yes.

Through a quirk of Oregon law, split rates for property taxes were not specifically allowed. Measure 18 corrects this oversight.

Measure 21

("None of the Above" Act for electing judges)

Where did it come from? Oregon's perennial tax activist Don McIntire, who was the father of Measure 5, and Loren Parks (money bags to a host of defeated ballot measures), put this measure on the ballot. Opponents claim this measure is an attempt by McIntire and his supporters to undermine the state's judicial election system because they cannot get their candidates on the ballot.

What it would do: This constitutional amendment would require judicial vacancies be filled through special elections the following May or November after the vacancy takes place. If the vacancy occurs within 90 days of the election, the race would be pushed back until the next May or November. This would replace current law that requires the governor to appoint judges into those vacancies until regularly scheduled judicial races, which are filled during general elections (November of even-numbered years). Also appearing on the ballot of all judicial races will be "None of the Above." If "None of the Above" draws more votes than the candidate winning the most votes, a runoff election will be required until a candidate other than "None of the Above" receives the most votes.

Supporters believe incumbent judges seeking re-election often have an unfair opportunity to keep their seats. With the governor appointing judges when vacancies occur, it gives them the judges, who supporters say have similar philosophies as the governor that appointed them. It also gives them an advantage when they run for re-election.

Opponents believe this will leave gaping holes in Oregon courts, especially those in rural areas where it doesn't make sense to leave positions open until the next election.

The proposal is to allow Oregon voters to elect all judges from the beginning, rather than have the governor appoint them. Also, it allows voters a way to get rid of incumbent judges running unopposed whom they do not want in office, claim supporters of the bill.

Instead of governor-nominated judges filling vacancies, special elections would be held the following May or November. If the vacancy occurs within 90 days of the election, it would be pushed back until the following May or November. If "None of the Above" receives more votes than any challengers, another election must be held until a candidate receives more votes than "None of the Above."

Reality check: This, for the most part, takes the governor out of process of choosing judges to fill vacancies. It also allows opponents of judges running unopposed to mount a campaign against them by supporting "None of the above."

Recommendation: No.

An independent judiciary is a bedrock of American and Oregon's democracy. This initiative threatens that basic tenet, by bringing special interest politics into the courtroom. If enacted, this measure would easily lead to a perpetual election cycle for judges, because they would constantly be competing with a phantom opponent named "None of the Above." Judicial districts could easily sit vacant for months after "None of the Above" won.

Our judicial elections work fine. They aren't broke. There is no need to "fix" them.

Measure 22

(Judicial Accountability Act)

Where did it come from? Chief petitioners Steve Doelle, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, R-Medford, believe Portland metro voters have the upper hand in putting judges on the bench that are more liberal and environmentally friendly when it comes to decisions they often make. Measure 22 requires Oregon Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges to be elected by district rather than at-large.

What it would do: The measure would divide the state into seven districts based on population for Supreme Court elections with one judge coming from each. For the Court of Appeals, the state would be divided into five districts, with two judges elected from each one (except for tax court). Judges running for office will be required to reside in the districts from which they are seeking office. They must reside in the district for at least one year prior to running for office and remain a resident throughout the period they serve.

Opponents to this measure argue that Oregonians will not be well served by this measure because they will not have the opportunity to elect the best judges. Instead, they will be forced to elect judges from limited pools from each district. They claim that what's needed most is a judiciary made up of our best and brightest interpreting and implementing the law, not on political ideologies or geographical requirements.

Proponents believe that Oregon's Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have become activist courts, often tossing out ballot measures approved by voters. Two recent examples of laws being tossed out by higher courts that voters supported as ballot measures concern term limits and compensation for landowners that suffer financial loss due to environmental laws and other regulations. Supporters of this measure believe that electing from districts will allow more diverse opinions on rulings made by the courts, rather than by biases attributed to all judges being elected from the most populous areas of the state.

Opponents to this measure say ballot measures are tossed out because they are poorly drafted or violate the constitution because they deal with more than one matter. They argue that the petitioners of this measure are conservatives who have failed at trying to stack the court in their favor and this is just their last attempt to achieve their goal. They also believe that all Oregonians should have the opportunity to elect the best and brightest to the bench, wherever they come from, rather than be limited to just a few candidates in various districts.

Reality check: Voting for Supreme Court and appellate judges by district was a part of the original Oregon Constitution. However, it was tossed out in 1910 by initiative petition. However, supporters of this election's measure claim the language of the 1910 measure had nothing to do with voting by district and the law was implemented anyway because of the power structure at the time wanted it out but didn't want to specifically say that in the 1910 election. At least 22 of 36 Oregon district attorneys support this measure. They include Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, and Bill Porter in Tillamook. Marquis says it would add accountability to the selections.

This is the next step in the ongoing debate between urban and rural parts of the state about perceived unfair representation in statewide offices.

Recommendation: No.

This is part of a broad movement to sectionalize the judiciary, so that corporate and special interests would have a good shot at electing their candidates. From 1857-1919, Oregon had judicial districts. That practice was ended by a ballot initiative. Like Measure 21, this initiative is an attempt to put a judge beholden to a special interest on the state's high court. This ballot measure is likely unconstitutional, violating the one-man, one-vote principle.

Measure 23

(the Oregon Comprehensive Health Care Finance Plan)

Where did it come from? Eugene-based Health Care for All-Oregon developed this ballot initiative.

What it would do: "What we're trying to do is provide health care for all residents of Oregon," explains Dr. John Partridge of Portland, a retired doctor of internal medicine with 56 years of experience. The initiative would replace the current private health-insurance system in Oregon with a state-run single-payer plan financed, the initiative reads, from "contributions by workers' compensation insurers, self-insureds" and "additional progressive income tax not to exceed 3.9 percent of total statewide personal income, 8 percent of individual's taxable income" as well as an "additional employer payroll tax with maximum, minimum rates."

A 15-member board of appointed and elected trustees would establish the tax rates within the prescribed limits, not to exceed $25,000 for any individual taxpayer. The board also would establish compensation schedules for services and for prescription drugs, negotiate contracts and adopt rules for implementing and operating the plan.

"We are the only industrialized nation that does not have universal health care," points out Phil Dreyer, spokesman for Health Care for All-Oregon. The group focuses on 347,000 Oregonians, including 70,000 children, who they say are uninsured; and the initiative aims to affect thousands of others who struggle to pay for health insurance in the private marketplace.

Proponents say they could trim overhead and administrative costs to pay for the plan. After three years, the plan would cap administrative costs at 5 percent. Bulk purchase of prescription drugs would lower costs. Proponents say 37.8 percent of health care needs would be met through a proposed federal Medicare waiver.

Reality check: Measure 23 would cost as much as $20 billion, by proponents' estimates, through accrual of speculative savings and by assessing a new payroll tax of 11.5 percent and raising income taxes up to as much as 8 percent of income in order to insure all Oregonians. Oregonians Against Unhealthy Taxes write: "Implementing Measure 23 would require the largest tax increase in Oregon history. The new 11.5 percent payroll on employers and highest-in-the-nation income taxes would hurt Oregon's weak economy, trigger layoffs and closures."

Nearly 40 million Americans lack adequate health coverage, according to Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who supports universal health care legislation in the U.S. Congress. However, even DeFazio, an advocate for universal health care, expresses reservations with Measure 23, citing "the doubling of the state income tax, the 11 percent payroll tax increase on employers, the lack of price controls on prescription drugs which makes it extraordinarily expensive, and the potential drain on resources needed for other state priorities like education." DeFazio also questioned the proposed waiver for Medicare which would eliminate this program in Oregon.

Recommendation: No.

Good intentions cannot replace sound and prudent policy. Oregonians cannot afford Measure 23.

Measure 24

(allows licensed denturists to fit partial dentures)

Where did it come from? An industry split over how dentures are installed. Oregon was the first of five states, which now include Washington, Idaho and Montana, to allow denturists to be licensed and practice. They must have a two-year college equivalent and 1,000 hours of training, but not the four years of dental schooling required of dentists after their bachelor's degree.

Dentists acknowledge that denturists' offices are often used as laboratories by dentists who send impressions to the denturists to have patients' dentures created. But the dentures are returned to the dentist's office for fittings.

"The lab tech is not trained to work on the patient's teeth or fit dentures of any kind directly on patients," says Jane Myers, director of government affairs for the Oregon Dental Association. She acknowledges that some denturists have gained training outside Oregon, but notes that the measure itself does not require any additional training.

What it would do: The new law would allow the state's 110 to 120 denturists to do what dentists can do - fit partial dentures. The measure would permit denturists to extend their practices to include fitting partials in addition to full upper and lower sets as the law allows right now.

"A partial is working with live teeth," said Jim Davis, the professional mouthpiece for the denturists. "They are simply fitting it around live teeth. There's really no harm to the public."

Not so, says Myers. Fitting partials satisfactorily isn't simple, she adds. "The design must take into account the patient's overall oral health, preparation of supporting teeth and gums and the dynamics of how this denture, which is removed frequently for cleaning, interacts with the pressures of the other teeth and bones." She says this is best done by a trained dentist.

Reality check: Fifteen percent of the American population wears dentures. Dentures are expensive and the patients who need them most, senior citizens, are often on low and fixed incomes. In addition to dentists, specialists called denturists exist to provide lower cost dentures. Right now, Oregon law allows them to make and fit full sets of upper or lower dentures.

They are allowed to make partial dentures, but banned by law from fitting them in a patient's mouth.

The rhetoric in this campaign focuses on what is best for consumers - money or trained professional care. Denturists says they want to break the dentists' monopoly to save consumers money. Dentists say they fear patients will suffer because untrained people will have their hands in their mouths fitting dentures. Denturists say it costs 40 percent more to have a dentist fit a partial. Although stressing that costs will vary with individual's needs, they suggest that denturists could be changing perhaps $500 to $800 for a single partial whereas dentists might be changing $800 to $1,200. Myers doesn't address those figures, but says a study reported in the Canadian Dental Association Journal revealed large savings haven't been apparent in Canada where the program exists.

Recommendation: Yes

This initiative is a benefit to consumers. It is abundantly evident that denturists can deliver partial dentures for less than what dentists charge patients.

Measure 25

(Raising the minimum wage)

Where did it come from? During the 2001 Oregon Legislature, state Rep. Diane Rosenbaum sponsored a bill to raise the state minimum wage and institute an automatic escalator clause. The Republican leadership gave the bill no hearing or committee work sessions, so a coalition gathered signatures for the ballot.

What it would do: Measure 25 would raise the Oregon minimum wage from $6.50 to $6.90, effective January 2003. Every January thereafter, the state minimum wage would increase proportionally to the increase in the consumer price index.

Reality check: Among West Coast states, Oregon's minimum wage is the lowest, behind that of Alaska, Washington and California. Washington has made a decision to tie its minimum wage to the consumer price index. Oregon's last minimum wage increase was approved by the voters in 1996 and mandated three sequential raises that were completed in 1999.

Measure 25 is supported by a broad coalition of labor and social action groups. Its opposition comes mainly from the Oregon Restaurant Association.

J.L. Wilson of the restaurant association says: "There is no compelling reason to raise the minimum wage. Ours is the fourth highest in the nation, and our economic circumstances are not good. The impetus needs to be behind job creation. Unemployment is the issue to address. Raising the minimum wage won't create jobs."

Bill Perry of the ORA notes a disconnect: That Oregon has the fourth highest minimum wage, but leads the nation in hunger.

Rep. Rosenbaum says it makes sense to raise the minimum wage in this economy, because the cost of other goods and services, such as child care, are going up. "If we had been indexing since 1969, the minimum wage would be $8.50. Setting it at $6.90 doesn't catch us up to the purchasing power that was lost," she said. "Some in our camp say this figure is too low."

Perry would like to have certain occupations, such as restaurant workers, exempt form the minimum wage.

Landmark economic research of about one decade ago revealed that states with higher minimum wages actually attract business when compared with adjacent states that have lower minimum wage. That research by a Princeton professor won the John Bates Clark Medal of the American Economics Association.

Recommendation: Yes.

The economic effect of raising the minimum wage is to increase the total income of one demographic sector. That is a good thing. Indexing the minimum wage also makes sense. Neighboring Washington has shown the way. Oregon should follow suit.

Measure 26

(Initiative Integrity Act)

Where did it come from? A diverse coalition which includes Oregon AFL-CIO and advocates for the initiative process, including conservative interests, brought forward this constitutional amendment.

What it would do: Proponents of Measure 26 seek to curb corruption and abuse of Oregon's initiative process, including forgery of signatures on petitions and misrepresentation of measures to the public by paid contractors. Measure 26 prohits paying for or receiving paid-for signatures and requires participants to sign for the authenticity of the signatures they gathered.

Reality check: Proponents say the measure would deter professional contractors with tendencies toward abuse, primarily by removing the incentive of being paid per each signature gathered. The measure does not propose sanctions, but the Oregon Legislature and secretary of state's office could establish penalties for violators. The measure strives to chase away abusers. "If this passes they will have no reason to come back," Patty Wentz, Measure 26 campaign staff member, said of the professional pay-per-signature contractors with histories of abuse. " This will have a real chilling effect on these mercenary petitioners." Petioners need about 89,000 valid signatures for constitutional amendments.

Recommendation: Yes.

Voters should pass Measure 26. Opponents such as Phil Dreyer with the Health Care for All and Common Cause coalitions argue, "It would limit the initiative process to big buiness and big labor." However, the diversity of supporters for this measure and its modest reforms in the wake of high-profile abuses of the initiative process should convince voters to pass Measure 26.

Measure 27

(genetic labeling)

Where did it come from? The campaign is being led by a single mom Donna Harris of Portland, with support from the Natural Law Party in Oregon, who says she wants to know what her two children are ingesting. She said she began her effort after calling a baby's formula company and discovering its staff didn't really know what was in its products. (Harris earned national attention working on the Oregon measure designed to open adoption records and now says her phone rings daily with international media requests for interviews and people in other states asking how to mirror her labeling campaign.)

What it would do: The measure requires labeling of genetically engineered foods sold or distributed in or from Oregon. Some consumers fear that genetically engineered foods are potentially harmful to their families' health and want better labeling of products to know what they are eating. In Europe, similar fears in the past half-dozen years has led to conflicting regulations over labeling products as organic, or not, although many scientific and government groups have concurred that there was no significant differences in the produce. Advocates want Oregon to require more specific labeling of all products. The measure would require any food that has been genetically engineered or modified from its natural state during processing to be labeled. Its backers define such "engineering" broadly. It would take effect March 5.

Reality check: Opponents include the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group whose spokesman says the labels will add to the cost of packaging and act as an unfair warning sign on their products, which they believe to be perfectly safe. They say the proposed law is poorly drafted and would unreasonably cover products from the time the raw materials are grown until they reach the grocery store shelves so that practically everything would have to be labeled. It would also mean products sold in Oregon having to have additional labels to items sold elsewhere, adding to costs.

Federal requirements for labeling organic foods come into effect Oct. 25 and will become law across the nation. That's one reason opponents say the Oregon law change isn't needed and note that the federal law is more carefully defined. They add that the World Health Organization, the National Academy of the Sciences and other organizations have said there is no benefit in such additional labeling. Laws already exist making it a Class B criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine, for misbranding products.

Recommendation: No.

It's great when Oregon is ahead of the nation in many things, but this isn't one of them. Consumers would see higher prices and no extra benefit, and there would be confusion with the federal rules. Chalk this one up as well-intentioned but unnecessary.

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