CITIZEN REVIEWS OF INITIATIVES QUESTIONED

From The Statesman Journal:

By Peter Wong

The first of two citizen reviews of statewide ballot initiatives will start today at the Salem Conference Center, where two dozen panelists chosen from around Oregon will hear arguments and draw conclusions about Measure 85.

But in a twist from the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, the measure’s official sponsors have chosen not to make a presentation, saying the process is a waste of money and time.

Sponsored by Our Oregon, a group funded by public employee unions, Measure 85 on the Nov. 6 ballot would divert excess corporate income taxes into state aid for public schools. It would not affect “kicker” tax refunds to individuals.

“Instead of spending a week in a Salem conference center with 30 people, we will spend our time talking to thousands of voters in their own communities,” Scott Moore, a spokesman for Our Oregon, said in a statement.

Backers of the review process say they have lined up others who will make the case for and against the measure. They say the process is intended not to sway voters, but to inform them beyond paid advertising.

“I’m still a little bit in shock that they’re not going to do it,” said Tyrone Reitman, executive director of Healthy Democracy Oregon, which has run all of the panels. “It’s a pretty amazing statement they sent out, and I’m totally surprised, given our track record. But we’re going to go ahead as planned.”

The public is invited to watch the presentations, which are scheduled Tuesday morning.

What’s being considered

Although the “kicker” was made law in 1979, voters made it part of the Oregon Constitution in 2000, so only they can change it.

In 2007, the most recent year in which “kicker” refunds were made, individuals were rebated a record $1.1 billion, but lawmakers diverted $319 million planned for businesses into the state’s first general reserve fund. Virtually all of that reserve was tapped by lawmakers during the economic downturn since then.

Measure 85 is the first proposed change in the “kicker” to reach the ballot since 2000. Lawmakers have talked about more sweeping changes, but nothing has emerged.

A second panel will convene Aug. 20 at the Doubletree Hotel by Hilton in Portland to consider the merits of two measures authorizing a private nontribal casino east of Portland.

Reitman said both sides on Measures 82 and 83 are ready to make their presentations.

He said they might be observed by people from other states, including California and Washington, considering similar review processes.

Panels of 24 people are chosen based on the availability of participants for a week, and balanced by geographic and other factors so they they are a representative sampling of Oregon voters. They listen to presentations, ask questions and then deliberate.

At the end of the week, they draw conclusions of fact and they can take stands for or against the measure. Their statements are included in the official state voters pamphlet, which goes to every household, and the online voters guide.

Reitman said this time, as opposed to the first two times, advocates and opponents will have more opportunities to comment on the work of the panels as it progresses.

“We tried to open it up so that they could have even more say than they had before,” he said.

Third go-around

In 2008, a panel evaluated a measure that would have limited to two years public-school instruction in a language other than English. Voters rejected the measure.

In 2010, one panel evaluated Measure 74, which would have allowed state-licensed dispensaries for medical-marijuana patients. A second panel evaluated Measure 73, which imposed 25-year prison terms for repeat felony sex offenders and 90-day jail sentences for repeat drunken drivers.

Both of those panels met in Salem.

By a 13-11 vote, a panel narrowly favored Measure 74. By 21-3, the other panel opposed Measure 73. But voters rejected Measure 74 and passed Measure 73.

“This abysmal track record shows that the panels are far from representative of the voting public, and that the materials they produce don’t have any impact on how voters make their decisions,” Moore said.

Reitman said Moore’s comment ignores a finding in a post-election report, submitted to the Legislature, that said about 40 percent of those sampled were aware of the work of the panel and took it into account in making their decisions.

“Theirs is a myopic way of looking at the effects of this process,” he said.

He also said the point of such panels is not to sway voters either way, but to inform them about ballot measures beyond advertising in the voters pamphlet or commercial media.

“It’s a real misunderstanding of how the initiative review process works,” Reitman said. “They think they are basically the owners of that measure since it was submitted, but that’s not how the process works.”

The official pamphlet does contain factual information, such as a financial-effect statement prepared by state officials and an explanatory statement hammered out by supporters and opponents. Arguments for and against a measure, however, are paid for.

Funding question

The process has been funded by outside grants, although Our Oregon asserts that a state loan was used for start-up costs of a new commission.

“So far, no accounting has been made public about how much of that money has been paid back, if any,” wrote Our Oregon’s Moore.

“While Oregon is facing ongoing cuts to schools and basic services like health care and public safety, the state shouldn’t be giving or loaning money to ineffective projects like this one. However much money or staff time has been given or loaned to the project is money that should have been spent in Oregon classrooms or on critical projects.”

But Reitman said that under a 2011 law, the 11-member commission that will oversee the work of the panels got a state appropriation of $1 — the minimum necessary to establish an account for outside grants.

“There is no state money going into it,” he said.

What’s next:

The public is invited to observe the presentations for and against Measure 85 to a citizens’ initiative review panel. The presentations are scheduled to start at 8:50 a.m. Tuesday in the Salem Conference Center, 200 Commercial St. SE, Salem.

Measure 85, if approved by Oregon voters Nov. 6, would divert excess corporate income tax collections into state aid for public schools. It would not affect excess personal income tax collections triggered by the “kicker” to individuals.

The panel will start Monday and end Friday with conclusions and statements for the state voters pamphlet.

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